When most politicians leave office, they tend to spend their time flying around the world giving speeches on subjects such as green growth and globalisation. But things are slightly different on the mainland. When top Communist Party leaders retire, they do not necessarily go. They certainly have more time to pursue their non-political hobbies, ranging from calligraphy to tennis. But they also seem to do pretty much the same things they did when they were in office. They continue talking politics and practising politicking, some of them even when they are too old to understand or utter a comprehensible sentence. Looking around the podium and the first few rows in the Great Hall of the People on the opening day of the 17th party congress gave some idea of how rampant gerontocracy still is in this country. Under the media glare, a group of eightysomethings - or even ninetysomethings - turned up at the crucial party caucus, where a young generation of leaders was to be endorsed. They might look frail, but it is clear their opinions matter, especially when it comes to the real issues: who is in and who is out at the top. The average life expectancy for a man on the mainland is 66 years, but there is no expiry date on a political career. It is widely believed that Jiang Zemin, President Hu Jintao's predecessor, has spent a considerable chunk of his retirement time plotting to prolong his political as well as his biological life. In the year leading up to the congress, Mr Jiang, 81, stirred quite often. He made high-profile 'inspection tours' of provinces and national exhibitions in what analysts believe was a defiant 'I'm still all right' declaration and also, probably, a formal note to Mr Hu to reserve at least one or two seats for his allies in the new leadership lineup. In China, age counts for a lot. And it is worth remembering that at no time during its communist, nationalist or imperial periods has the country been noted for leaders who willingly gave up power before their deaths. There was a period when a handful of revolutionary old guards, the so-called 'eight immortals', pulled the strings from behind the scenes. The immortals, including paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and his political contemporaries, dictated government and party policy even though they had formally retired from office and had little day-to-day role in government. All seemed to have learned the secret to long life, although they sometimes had to be wheeled out for public activities. And their nod was essential for any policy to get through. 'They used to be the country's core. Their power didn't come from public office but from their revolutionary credentials,' one Beijing-based political scientist said. 'That period was one of the times when politics was at its most opaque. A cult of personality pervaded.' The passing of the era of old-man politics lifts an ideological weight from the shoulders of the younger generation of leaders. It also represents the slow but progressive institutionalisation of power succession within the Communist Party, analysts say. A set of strict retirement ages for government and party officials has been introduced to prevent the system of de facto lifetime bureaucratic tenure. Beginning in 1982, the retirement age of ministers, provincial party secretaries and governors was set at 65, and that of their deputies at 60. A two-term limit has been imposed on all party and government positions. As intended, the combined effect of these measures has been to prevent the perpetuation of individuals' power and accelerated the ascent of the next generation. Almost instantly, it transformed a ruling elite dominated by poorly educated, ageing revolutionaries into one composed mostly of middle-aged technocrats. But retired senior cadres still need to be kept content. In fact, a special name was coined for this kind of retirement: lixiu, literally meaning leaving the post and resting. After lixiu, top cadres can keep their official cars, chauffeurs and security guards. They receive an extra month's wage each year and extra housing, which their children and grandchildren are entitled to after they die. They continue to enjoy all former political privileges, such as reading top confidential circulars. Compared with the retired politicians of earlier generations, who seemed incapable of enjoying a life of leisure, today's senior party officials know how to have fun and do look a lot more relaxed. Mr Jiang was well known for his artistic aspirations even when he was in office. Since retirement, a still more spontaneous Mr Jiang has indulged in his well-publicised hobbies of reading, practising English and watching Peking Opera. He even made an effort to perform, in a type of musical form, on the stage of the newly finished National Grand Theatre. In contrast, Zhu Rongji , Mr Jiang's premier, prefers to stay out of the headlines. All that is known about the once tough and almost imperious finance tsar's retirement is that he likes to play traditional Chinese musical instruments. Another music fan is former vice-premier Li Lanqing. The 74-year-old leader retired from politics in 2003, and has devoted his life out of office to reading and writing. The result is five books on topics ranging from the education portfolio he used to head to the history of western classical music. A talented pianist, he has written a book on the lives of 50 European musicians and the history of European music over the past 300 years. Former foreign minister Li Zhaoxing chose to return to his alma mater, Peking University, and teach. 'I am a teacher now,' Mr Li said on the sidelines of the 17th party congress. 'It's a very good experience. I am very happy to learn with young people.'