Xi Jinping, seeking to extend power, may bend rules
President of China may postpone retirement policy.
For years, China’s Communist Party has maintained a check on the power of its leaders by calling on them to retire if they have reached age 68 when a new term begins.
Now President Xi Jinping, already the strongest Chinese leader in decades, may be maneuvering to bend those rules to retain a formidable ally — and create a precedent he could use to extend his own time in power.
Xi, 63, who has shaken up many political norms, does not want to be shackled by an informal rule created by his predecessors, people close to senior officials have said.
Whether Xi can get away with changing the age ceiling for staying in the party’s top rank, the Politburo Standing Committee, has become a bellwether of how far he can consolidate his grip on a new party leadership that will be chosen in the fall.
Xi’s immediate goal appears to be opening the way to keeping on Wang Qishan, who has led his signature anticorruption drive and become one of the most powerful and feared officials in China, those people and other observers said. Wang, who is 68, could be forced to step down this year if the informal age ceiling holds.
But keeping Wang in place would also create an example that Xi could follow to stay in power after his two terms as president end in 2023. Already, news that Xi may delay choosing his successor has fanned speculation that he wants to prolong his hold on power.
Wang’s fate has become one of the most intensely followed parts of the secretive maneuvering ahead of a Communist Party leadership shake-up late this year.
Wang’s staying on is a strong possibility, though not a certainty, said a retired Chinese official who knows several leaders, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss elite political deliberations. He said that Xi said the age rule was not absolute, which was understood by officials to mean that he wanted Wang to be considered for the next term.
The blunt and combative Wang is an old friend of Xi’s. Since 2012, Wang has led the Communist Party’s discipline commission, overseeing the anti-corruption campaign that has been a crowning feat of Xi’s tenure. Wang also expanded the commission’s role in policing loyalty to the party leader, making him a top political enforcer for Xi.
Along with his allegiance to Xi, Wang’s diverse achievements — including as deputy prime minister, mayor of Beijing and as one of the government’s top financial firefighters — have fueled talk that Xi may want to install him as prime minister, shunting aside Li Keqiang, who was not Xi’s pick for the job.
A party congress this fall will almost certainly reappoint Xi as party general secretary for five more years and appoint a new team to serve under him. Five of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including Wang, must retire then under the current age limits.
But the rule, known as “seven up, eight down,” is not codified in any public documents. It says members of the Politburo Standing Committee who are 68 or older when the party congress meets every five years will retire, while officials 67 or younger remain in contention for the next term.
The retirement age has been changed for political ends before. In 1997, President Jiang Zemin imposed a ceiling of 70 to dispense with one rival, and five years later reduced it to 68 to push out another. (He made an exception for himself, staying on as party leader until he was 76.)
“The rules for succession are all unwritten and largely up for negotiation,” said Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies at King’s College, London. “All Xi has to do is play the ‘exceptional times need exceptional remedies’ card.”
But while Xi is formidable, he may have to make trade-offs. Wang’s chances of staying on may not survive the bartering among the party elite who choose the new lineup.
In particular, Xi may face suspicions that he wants to use Wang as a stalking horse for keeping power beyond the usual two terms as top leader. That too is an informal rule that has developed since the 1990s, when Deng Xiaoping sought to prevent another dictator-for-life like Mao.
By law, Xi can serve only two terms as president, but no law prevents him from retaining the more powerful post of party leader or some other position. Xi will turn 69 in 2022 when his second term as party general secretary ends.
Neither Xi nor Wang has said anything publicly about his plans. That would be nearly unthinkable hubris in the shadow play of Chinese politics, where ambition and power plays come cloaked in high-minded rhetoric and rules.
But the talk about Wang took off in October, when a party official, Deng Maosheng, told foreign reporters in Beijing that the age rule was not set in stone.
“The strict boundaries of ‘seven up, eight down’ don’t exist,” he said, according to Bloomberg. “This is something from folklore.”
At the time, it was unclear whether Deng was echoing the views at the top of the party. His comments were not reported in Chinese media.
But before Deng’s public remarks, Xi had said behind closed doors that the age rule was “not absolute,” said the former official who knows several members of the party leadership.
His account was corroborated by a former American official with extensive high-level contacts in China. He spoke on condition of anonymity to protect those contacts.
He said two people who meet with senior leaders had told him that Xi had played down the “seven up, eight down” rule.
Both unnamed people said that, as far as they knew, Xi had not yet expressly demanded that Wang be kept on. Instead, by raising the age issue, Xi has signaled that Wang should be considered in discussions over coming months.
Wang also displays a deep red streak of faith in authoritarian, one-party rule not so far from Xi’s convictions.
“Wang is pragmatic and clear-eyed,” said Trey McArver, director of China research for TS Lombard, an investment research company.
“But it’s a mistake to see him as a liberal free-marketeer. Rather, he is a reformer in the Chinese sense of the word. He will seek to increase the efficiency of the state-controlled system.”
Some in Beijing say they believe that with China’s economy slowing and straining under debt, and President Donald Trump threatening to curb Chinese exports, Xi could make a case for making Wang prime minister.
“It seems clear to me that Xi would trust Wang more than Li and, as we know, Li was not Xi’s choice,” said Tony Saich, professor at Harvard who specializes in Chinese politics.
“The replacement of Li by Wang might provide a chance to kick-start stalled reforms after the next congress.”
Most insiders consider the move unlikely, however.
Wang would be reluctant to take the job unless Xi gave him a bigger say over the economy, said Deng Yuwen, a commentator in Beijing who formerly edited a party newspaper. Xi might be unwilling to share that power.
Chinese President Xi Jinping hopes to raise the age ceiling.