Does China’s Communist Party follow any succession rules at all?
Senior party official’s dismissal of unwritten rules as ‘folklore’ muddies waters ahead of top-level reshuffle late this year
Once every four years, as Americans stare anxiously at live updates of presidential election vote counts, Chinese internet users unable to cast such votes tell the same joke: “We always know who our next leader will be.”
The joke is accurate given the lack of open competition in Chinese politics, but a tweak at the end might make it even better: “But we never know when they will step down, or how.”
Though the Communist Party has long prided itself on ending life tenure after Mao Zedong’s death in the 1976, its power transitions are bound by nothing but a set of informal rules and conventions surrounding retirement and succession.
The picture was muddied further in October, around a year ahead of the next scheduled top-level power reshuffle, when a senior party official dismissed its informal retirement rules as “folklore”.
“People say ‘67 in and 68 out’ and some [Politburo] Standing Committee members retire before reaching 68,” Deng Maosheng, who helped draft the communique for the sixth plenum of the party’s 18th Central Committee, told Hong Kong journalists. “The party makes adjustments according to the circumstances. There is no specific standard age [for Politburo Standing Committee members to retire].”
Deng’s comment came as a shock to many China watchers, who saw it as possibly heralding changes to a system followed since 2002 with a view to institutionalising succession at the top and stabilising the one-party regime.
Despite almost 40 years of reform and opening up after the Mao era, with modernisation making China’s economy the world’s second biggest, only limited changes have been made to the Communist Party’s procedures surrounding succession – something that has proved a headache for all Leninist states.
China’s constitution limits every president and premier to two five-year terms, but there are no party rules about term limits or retirement age for the position that really matters: party general secretary.
That makes China’s power transition less predictable than Vietnam’s, where the party constitution limits general secretaries to two terms.
The retirement age ceiling Deng dismissed as “folklore” – which has come to be known as the “seven up, eight down” rule – has only been practised since 2002, when it formed the basis for the first orderly power transition in Chinese Communist Party history. Jiang Zemin retired as party chief at the age of 74 that year and so did every other member of the Politburo Standing Committee apart from Hu Jintao, Jiang’s successor, with the youngest to retire aged 68.
The same unwritten convention was strictly followed in the two subsequent Politburo Standing Committee reshuffles – in 2007 and 2012 – with those 68 or older retiring and the oldest to join aged 67.
The rule, which effectively limited both Jiang and Hu to two terms as general secretary, was once viewed by many party members as a significant step in the normalisation of Chinese politics. Zhou Ruijin, a former deputy editor of the party mouthpiece People’s Daily, described it as “spectacular progress”.
“A replacement mechanism for the top leadership has been formed: you can go up at 67 and need to step down at 68,” Zhou told Xinhua in 2008.
However, age has never been the decisive criteria when it comes to retirement, according to Zhu Lijia, a political scientist with the Central Party School in Beijing.
“Age is only one of the elements to be considered [for retirement], but not the most important one,” he said. “The matter is decided based on the needs of the party and the country.”
But Zhu said he had no knowledge of the procedures for making such decisions, which were not stated in party regulations.
Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London, said unwritten conventions could be easily rewritten by the current leadership.
“Whatever any of these rules are, they are all ‘unwritten’ – and unwritten rules are the easiest to rewrite,” Brown said. “The political necessities around the party when the next congress happens will be the key thing. So if it is politically useful or expedient to have people stay on, it might be worth considering.
“But there will also be those in the party who will feel this damages its movement towards more institutionalisation.”
And that meant there would be a tussle in the party if such a change was under discussion.
Brown said that if party general secretary Xi Jinping could “present himself as someone indispensable for China’s successful management of its hugely difficult transitional moment, and for the delivery of a strong, stable and rich China and manages to stay in power longer than the party in the Soviet Union, then anything is possible”.
The Communist Party has now ruled China for more than 67 years, within striking distance of the record duration for a communist regime – the 68 years and 361 days achieved in the Soviet Union and Russia’s 74 years.
Xi recently bolstered his standing in the party, making the retirement issue more delicate. At a top-level meeting in October, he was anointed “core” of the party’s leadership – a title his predecessor Hu never won. The move sparked heated discussions about the possibility Xi might extend his grip on power, in one way or another, as all previous “core” leaders had done.
Deng Xiaoping and Jiang, both “core” party leaders, stayed on as chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission (CMC), which commands the world’s largest standing army, for two years after they relinquished leading roles in the party. The commission is usually chaired by the party general secretary, but when it is not its chairman is regarded as being more powerful than the party chief.
When Jiang stayed on as commission chairman he said he was doing so to help his successor. When Hu became the first leader to quit the military post and the party leadership simultaneously, in 2012, Xi commended him for his “high ethics”.
Before its succession rules became somewhat clearer in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the history of the party featured plenty of opaque but destructive factional conflicts.
Mao changed his chosen successor three times, with the first two dying in controversial circumstances. Deng Xiaoping, after purging Mao’s last pick, Hua Guofeng, ditched two of his own proteges, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, before endorsing a third, Jiang.
Those feuds, some of them fatal for contenders for the top job, were usually followed by sharp changes in the direction in national policies, leaving the public, business chiefs and bureaucrats confused.
Professor Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said the informal rules had never been strong enough to completely protect the fragile institutionalisation process from the influence of retired leaders.
“Retirement rules are supposed to remove uncertainties. People would all predict a new leader every 10 years,” Tsang said. “But uncertainties grow when people start to wonder if he wants to stay for 10 years or 15.”
Deng Maosheng’s remark in October that the seven up, eight down rule was folklore was clearly designed to test the water, Tsang said.
“It’s clearly an endorsed message to imply the protracted retirement of Wang Qishan,” he said.
Wang, the party’s anti-graft chief, is seen by many as an ally of Xi, but he will be 69 when the party congress decides late this year on the membership of the next Politburo Standing Committee. “If that happens, it would mean the retirement rules only apply when they’re deemed suitable.”
The party’s retirement and succession rules were left vague intentionally to allow room for manipulation, said Chen Daoyin, a political scientist at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.
“The way each of them retire is ultimately decided by how much power they have. It’s not likely they want to bound themselves with explicit rules,” Chen said. “But efforts could be made to regulate lower-level offices in the party first, like the Central Secretariat.”
Once rules were set up for such offices, they could be then gradually be introduced to regulate higher offices, Chen said.
“But it’s highly unlikely they discuss the term limits of the general secretary,” he said. “Those of the CMC chair are even harder – it’s the innermost position.”
Wu Wei, a political scholar who worked in a top-level office overseeing political reform in the 1980s, said it would normally be sufficient to regulate retirement for government positions, and leave the party to its own devices.
“But the Communist Party is leading everything now,” he said. “To be responsible to the country, they should set up clear retirement rules, too. The responsibility to do so always falls on the current top leaders. But I don’t think it’s on the table now.”