Through which mechanisms do officials in rural areas in China reach the higher cadre positions in government bureaucracies? Literature on career advancement variously points to the relevance of human capital, social capital and political loyalty, but does not provide unambiguous answers as to which type of capital plays which role in the mobility of government officials. Adopting social network analysis, the authors conducted fieldwork in a township in northeast China, and obtained overwhelming evidence of the crucial importance of the ‘strong ties’ variety of social capital (real and fictive kinship relations) for recruitment and promotion at the township level. More specifically, for the highest positions both human and social capital are required, for medium-level functions social capital alone is enough. Those who are successful and have primarily social capital acquire human capital through obtaining or buying university degrees. Likewise, tokens of political loyalty can be purchased whenever required for entering relevant administrative positions. Those who initially have only human capital will rapidly need to acquire social capital by developing fictive kinship relations if they wish to make steps in their careers.