Xi Jin­ping, seek­ing to ex­tend power, may bend rules

Pres­i­dent of China may post­pone re­tire­ment pol­icy.

Austin American-Statesman - - STATESMAN AT THE LEGISLATURE - Chris Buck­ley ©2017 The New York Times

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.

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