BEIJING/HONG KONG – 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 remarks add new uncertainty to personnel moves at the party’s twice-a-decade congress in late 2017, since the rule underpins expectations that five of the current seven Standing Committee members will step aside. The absence of such a guideline would also lift one perceived barrier to Xi, 63, staying in the party’s uppermost echelon after completing two terms as general secretary in 2022.
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.
“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.”
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 to shape the next Standing Committee. The convention was maintained through the decade-long tenure of his successor, Hu Jintao.
Observers of China’s politics often speculate whether Xi might use his new authority to bend conventions at the congress 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 email. “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.”
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