Aging Chinese leaders don't get Hong Kong youth.

Photographer: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

Why China Doesn't Understand Hong Kong

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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Nobody would ever mistake the Chinese Communist Party for a fleet-footed, democratic organization responsive to public opinion. But over the decades it's shown a capacity to recognize when political winds are shifting and has been willing to accept outside advice and solutions. That's changing under President Xi Jinping. China's leadership has grown increasingly isolated and distant from citizens, calling into question whether it can truly identify with the needs of a young and dynamic population.

QuickTake Hong Kong's Autonomy

The political consequences are stark and not confined to the mainland. Monday's decision to bar two young Hong Kong pro-independence politicians from the autonomous city-state's legislative assembly is just the most recent example. The act precipitating the decision was juvenile, the equivalent of a high school prank: The newly elected legislators made a mockery of their oath-takings in mid-October. Rather than treat the incident as marginal behavior, leaders in Beijing misread the stunt as a threat to China's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Their intervention has sparked protests and a deepening political crisis. Had leaders paid closer attention to the split reaction to the oath-taking within Hong Kong, they might've acted more proportionally.

There are two reasons that China's leadership has become so isolated in its decision-making in recent years. The first is a problem identified as far back as the mid-1980s: a widening generation gap. Aging Chinese leaders pose a striking contrast to a youthful population braced by vast technological, demographic and economic changes.

In 1985, Deng Xiaoping spearheaded a campaign to convince China's elderly cadres to step aside for younger blood. Deng himself was 80 and the average age of the six-member, all-powerful Standing Committee was 76.5 years old. Some joked that due to age and infirmity, "Standing Committee" was a misnomer. Deng believed younger leaders were more likely to engineer the kind of changes he envisioned for China. "I was 45 at the time of liberation," he noted of the founding of modern China in 1949. "And many were even younger."

While Deng did his best to purge the elderly, it fell to Jiang Zemin in 2002 to assert what's now known as the "seven up, eight down" rule. Under it, any leader over the age of 68 was automatically excluded from membership on the seven-member Standing Committee.

The impact was notable. Between 1982 and 2002, the average age of Standing Committee members dropped from 72 to 60 years old. But since then, it's been ticking upward. Today, the average age of a Standing Committee member is 67.4 years -- more than a generation removed from anyone who grew up using the internet, struggling with China's spiraling housing prices or looking for a job in a stagnating economy.

Meanwhile, the gap continues to widen between the top echelon of leaders and their subordinates. Two steps down from the Politburo, the 205-member Central Committee's average age increased only slightly between 2002 and 2012 -- from 55.4 to 56.1 years old. Though the funnel to top power has always been narrow in China, age is clearly making it more so.

The second factor is even more crippling. Under Xi Jinping, China's Communist Party has become openly hostile to ideas and values perceived as threatening to the Party's grip on power, and has purged them (and the people who hold them) from government, universities and -- soon -- primary schools. Sources of information that might contribute to well-calibrated decision-making, such as social media, are limited on the mainland, while a free press -- long restricted in China -- is under attack in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Xi's ongoing centralization of power ensures that many policy experts who know better, or might have better ideas, are simply shut out.

Earlier generations of Chinese leadership weren't so closed off. In the 1980s, China's top leaders invited foreign economists to advise them on reforms (something that would be well-nigh impossible in today's xenophobic climate). And during the 1990s the regime slowly but surely expanded the scope of personal freedoms (from religious expression to sexual freedom) available to Chinese, in part as a response to the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square.

There's little evidence that Xi's government has the same capacity to recognize its limitations, much less to compensate for them with pragmatic policy. In fact, the evidence suggests just the opposite. Only last week, a senior party functionary claimed that Jiang's mandatory retirement rules were "folklore," strongly suggesting that China's current regime is soon to become more deeply entrenched, older and out-of-touch.

That's the wrong direction for China, and for Hong Kong. If Xi aspires to restore his government's damaged image among the city's youth, he needs to look back to earlier leaders like Deng, who were open to outside opinions and willing to shake up an aging gerontocracy. Only then will the Chinese government have the capacity to understand and respond to the concerns of the Chinese people, whether in Hong Kong or elsewhere.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net