Photographer: Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

Will Xi Bend Retirement 'Rule' to Keep Top Officials in Power?

  • Drafter of Xi policy documents calls guideline ‘pure folklore’
  • Remarks add new uncertainty to upcoming leadership reshuffle

A senior Communist Party policy official dismissed as “pure folklore” a retirement rule widely used to predict Chinese leadership changes, calling into question key assumptions about who will step down after President Xi Jinping’s reshuffle next year.

Deng Maosheng, a director with the party’s Central Policy Research Office, told reporters at a government-organized news briefing in Beijing on Monday that retirement rules for senior officials needed to be flexible and revised if circumstances required. He was responding to a question about “seven up, eight down,” shorthand for the party’s convention of retiring officials age 68 or older from the Politburo’s supreme Standing Committee.

“The strict boundaries of ‘seven up, eight down’ don’t exist,” said Deng, who has participated in the drafting of all four plenum communiques issued under Xi. “This is something from folklore, and cannot be trusted.” 

The comments may fuel speculation that Xi, 63, is looking for ways to extend his influence over the party. Under the current convention, Xi had been expected to give up leadership of the party in 2022. Deng’s remarks suggest he has more leeway in deciding his future and those of the other six members on China’s most powerful body, five of whom were due to retire next year.

‘Black-Box Operation’

“This can pave way for some senior leaders to stick around on their jobs longer than what’d have been allowed,” Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian and political commentator, said of Deng’s remarks. “It was a hidden rule to start with, made up to keep out rivals, and never reached the table; now it’s being rejected in public so as to keep allies in,” Zhang said.

He added: “It’s the quintessential reflection of Chinese politics as a black-box operation.”

Deng, whose office is overseen by Wang Huning, one of Xi’s top policy advisers, was speaking about the communique issued last Thursday at the conclusion of an annual party meeting in Beijing. The document announced that Xi had been officially designated as the party’s “core” leader, a status that’s expected to give him greater authority to push his agenda and promote favored officials.

The new designation for Xi doesn’t mean China wants a “personality cult,” Deng said. Rather, he said, it indicates that some sectors had became “individual kingdoms” that haven’t implemented the party’s decisions.

“In terms of selecting and promoting important leaders, there are strict organizational rules and sufficient democratic processes, but they are also subject to adjustment according to actual situations,” Deng said, without addressing the circumstances of specific leaders. Still, he said top leaders needed some sort of retirement age and he ruled out the prospect of “life tenure.”

Rare Remarks

It’s rare for party officials to acknowledge discussion of the “seven-up, eight-down” guideline. Wang Yukai, a professor at the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Governance, a state-run think tank, said the “unwritten rule” dates to around 2002, when then-President Jiang Zemin asserted it while the next Standing Committee was being shaped.

The Standing Committee is the inner sanctum of Chinese political power and its membership usually includes the president, premier, the national legislature chief and other top leaders. The convention of excluding any member 68 or older has been maintained for 15 years, and was consistent through the decade-long tenure of Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao.

Extended Tenures

Observers of China’s politics often speculate whether Xi might use his new authority to bend conventions at the party’s twice-a-decade congress in late 2017 and prolong the careers of aging allies. For example, Wang Qishan, who oversees Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, is 68.

“What I’ll be looking for at the 19th Party Congress is nothing original with me,” Andrew Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University who studies Chinese politics, said by e-mail. “I’ll want to see whether Wang Qishan stays, breaking the seven up, eight down rule, and whether an heir-apparent emerges or not, with the lack of an heir-apparent increasing the signaling that Xi will serve a third term.”

Age isn’t the only barrier preventing Xi from staying on. Another is the principle of collective leadership, which the party has stressed for more than three decades to prevent a repeat of Mao Zedong’s personality cult. Last week’s communique reaffirmed the commitment to collective leadership, saying the practice “must always be followed and should not be violated by any organization or individual under any circumstance or for any reason.”

Deng said retirement ages represented “ageism” and the party needed a more nuanced approach to the issue.

“The matter of age needs to be flexibly handled, and it doesn’t have to be a set standard," Deng said. “No clear limitation on the retirement age is a matter that is being emphasized at this moment.”

— With assistance by Ting Shi, and Keith Zhai

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