Xi’s Next Power Play May Be Age Limits for Everyone But Himself

  • Top leaders have observed age cap of 68 for two decades
  • Chinese leader has already disrupted power transition norms

Chinese President Xi Jinping is widely expected to defy the Communist Party’s retirement norms by clinching a landmark third term in power next month. The question is whether the 69-year-old will rewrite the rules for others — or just himself.

The requirement that top leaders step down after age 68 has held without exception for two decades, according to a Bloomberg analysis of government data, even though party officials have dismissed the age limit as “folklore.” Hundreds of cadres have been forced to leave the party’s 200-plus member Central Committee in that time, allowing the next generation to take their seats.

That presents a dilemma. By scrapping the age limit, Xi would lose a neutral selection criteria that has helped three generations of party leaders oust rivals and promote protégés. Enforcing it for everyone but himself — a scenario that experts view as more likely — would leave Xi surrounded by a plethora of younger officials who lack his experience at a time when China faces a range of challenges, including rising tensions with the US over Taiwan, a slowing economy and a spiraling property crisis.

“If such a criteria disappears, I think it would lead to chaos,” said Chen Gang, assistant director and senior research fellow of National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute. “It’s likely major disagreements could occur.”

The question is at the center of attempts to predict China’s political direction after a twice-a-decade party congress set to begin Oct. 16. Since Xi’s ascension to the top post in 2012, he has repeatedly bent or dismantled succession norms, ultimately establishing himself as the country’s strongest leader since Mao Zedong. The retirement age could be just one more precedent to fall.

No Country for Old Men

Nearly half China’s 19th Politburo have passed retirement age

Still, keeping the rule could have its advantages for a leader who has dubbed himself the “core,” written his name into the party charter and repealed the constitutional limit on how long he can serve as president. It allows him to remain exceptional, while giving him a mechanism to remove others who may have amassed influence on the 25-seat Politburo and its even more exclusive Standing Committee.

“Even for a top leader who has consolidated power, it’s impossible to decide on the appointments all by himself,” Chen said.

The so-called Seven Up, Eight Down rule took hold during the 2002 reshuffle overseen by outgoing President Jiang Zemin, then 76. It means that Politburo members who were 67 at the time of the congress can stay on for another five years, while those 68 or older must retire.

Hu Jintao, left, and Jiang Zemin.Photographer: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

The threshold helped ensure that Jiang’s 68-year-old rival, Li Ruihuan, left power at the same time he did. Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, upheld the rule when he stepped down in 2012, affirming the two-term precedent that Xi is expected to soon break.

But there’s also a political cost to keeping the cap. If Xi stays on after the party congress and enforces the retirement age for everyone else, 11 of the Politburo’s 25 members will step down. That includes two of the seven members now on the Standing Committee — and some of Xi’s most-trusted allies.

National People’s Congress Chairman Li Zhanshu, 72, and Vice Premier Han Zheng, 68, are among those who could age out of the Standing Committee. Li, Xi’s former chief of staff, has used his post as legislative chief to give Xi’s policies the force of law, including imposing a national security law on Hong Kong in 2020. Han — once linked to the so-called Shanghai faction — has overseen core Xi policies regarding Hong Kong and climate change.

Time’s Up

Politburo members past retirement age at the 20th party congress

The age limit would also prompt the biggest reshuffle of economic leaders in a decade, even as Xi’s Covid Zero policies drive a dramatic slowdown in growth. Economic czar Liu He, 70, who spearheaded trade talks with the Trump administration, is the most high-profile figure expected to step down.

China’s most-senior foreign policy officials — Politburo member Yang Jiechi, 72, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, 68 — could depart with no clear successors, just as Xi faces growing geopolitical pressure from the US. Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, 72 — the Politburo’s lone woman and the key official overseeing major virus lockdowns — will also likely step aside.

Liu He, center, and Sun Chunlan, right.Photographer: Leo Ramirez/AFP/Getty Images

The Chinese leader could keep trusted cadres close in unofficial roles. Xi ally Wang Qishan left the Standing Committee in 2017, at age 69, but was given the ceremonial role of vice president. Liu could follow a similar path, remaining as an informal adviser on the economy and US-China relations, said Neil Thomas, China analyst with Eurasia Group.

While Premier Li Keqiang has said he’ll depart the premiership in March, in line with term limits, at age 67 he’s still eligible for another term in the Standing Committee. That would echo the career path of Li Peng, who, after completing a decade as premier in 1998, remained in the Standing Committee for another term. He retired in 2002 at age 74.

Xi will likely keep the age rule only where he thinks it’s useful, said Joseph Torigian, assistant professor at American University. “Conventions in Chinese elite politics, to the extent they may or may not even exist in the first place, don’t have real resilience in the face of a leader who has reason to change them,” Torigian said.

Li KeqiangPhotographer: Feng Li/Getty Images

Freeing up some Politburo posts could motivate Central Committee members to better “obey Xi’s dictates and remain loyal servants of Xi’s agenda,” to win promotions, said Bo Zhiyue, director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Center.

Susan Shirk, a former State Department official who is now chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, said it’s more likely that Xi will follow Jiang in lowering the retirement age. That would allow him to elevate loyalists to replace Standing Committee members Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, and Wang Huning, she added.

“Li Keqiang and Wang Yang are reform-minded politicians who could put up some resistance to Xi during his third term,” Shirk said.

‘Rules For Thee, But Not For Me’

Xi has already started retiring some cadres early. Excluding those purged in scandals, only four Politburo members since 2002 have retired before age 68. Three of those early retirements came during the last congress.

“Those who meet the age criteria will not automatically get nominated,” the official Xinhua News Agency warned at the time. “It is determined by one’s political performance, probity and demand of the party’s endeavor.”

The party leadership could see an even larger turnover next month, creating more room for new blood to implement Xi’s policies. Alternatively, Xi could shrink the Standing Committee down to just a handful of leaders.

“It’s a tight-rope walk to enact a policy of ‘Rules for thee, but not for me,’” said Tristan Kenderdine, research director at consultancy Future Risk.

Source: Bloomberg

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