The past three turnovers in the inner circle of China’s Communist Party leadership have come with an age guideline for retirement: Those 67 years old or younger could stay; those 68 or older had to go.
Now, comments from a senior party functionary are adding fuel to speculation that President Xi Jinping may break with the norm at a once-every-five-years party congress late next year.Speaking to reporters Monday, Deng Maosheng, a director at the party’s Central Policy Research Office, dismissed the qishang baxia (“seven up, eight down”) retirement convention as a “popular saying” that “isn’t trustworthy.”
“The strict boundaries of ‘seven up, eight down’ don’t exist,” said Mr. Deng, whose office is headed by one of Mr. Xi’s top policy advisers. Rather, he said, retirement rules are “flexible” and subject to revision as circumstances require.
His comments were the most public expression to date of what some party insiders have been saying privately for months. The age norm is a burden to Mr. Xi as he works to sideline rivals and hold on to allies in the next leadership lineup in the party’s Politburo and its standing committee, the inner sanctum of Chinese political power.
Political observers say one of those allies is 68-year-old Wang Qishan, who has directed the president’s withering crackdown on graft and, increasingly, political disloyalty. Under the qishang baxia norm, Mr. Wang is among five members of the Politburo Standing Committee, which currently numbers seven, due to retire at the next party congress.Party insiders have also speculated that the 63-year-old Mr. Xi may try to defy another recent convention, by not promoting a potential successor to the Standing Committee next year. That could set him up to remain in power after the expiration in 2022 of his second—and by recent custom, final—term. He would be 69 by then.Mr. Deng’s comments send “a clear signal that Xi will be a ‘rule modifier’ rather than a strict rule follower,” said Jude Blanchette, a Beijing-based researcher who is writing a book on Mao Zedong’s legacy. The rules are merely norms, and not well settled, he said.
As for the age norm, China politics experts say it was introduced by Jiang Zemin, then the outgoing party chief, to push a rival into retirement at the 2002 congress. According to Mr. Blanchette, that episode showed that Chinese leaders have “readjusted” malleable party norms “to fit political exigencies.”Or, as Mr. Deng put it in a news briefing in Beijing, the “strict organizational procedures and sufficient democratic processes” used in selecting top party leaders are “subject to adjustments in accordance with practical conditions.”
Mr. Xi’s growing clout may represent just such a practical condition. A top-level party conclave last week designated him as the party leadership’s “core,” an arcane title that political observers say signified his pre-eminent status. It was previously applied to Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Mr. Jiang but not Mr. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao.
At Monday’s briefing, Mr. Deng of the party’s policy research office said the designation reflects Mr. Xi’s unanimous support within the party and broad public acclaim, but doesn’t threaten a return of a Mao-style “cult of personality”—which the party has explicitly banned—or contradict the party’s principles of collective leadership. Rather, the title was necessary to help the party and the country overcome new economic and political challenges, he said.
Mr. Hu, according to Mr. Deng, repeatedly declined to be designated as a “core” leader.“That time had its own circumstances,” he said. “The present has its own needs.”