When seven Han Chinese men in black suits were revealed as the new Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), nobody was that shocked. The fact that they’re all 60 something was a little more surprising.
Without any young blood (50 somethings) in the top ranks, Xi Jinping has deliberately neglected to answer the awkward question of who is to succeed him in 2022, when he’s due to retire. The widespread assumption is that Xi is ready to defer this question indefinitely, breaking party conventions to stay on beyond the end of his second term.
But Xi doesn’t have to resort to rule breaking. You don’t have to think Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to see how easy it is to get around titular constraints in China. Deng Xiaoping ruled for decades from behind the scenes, and although Xi, the “Chairman of Everything,” seems to love titles, his authority doesn’t depend upon them.
Founding the Peoples’ Republic in 1949, Mao Zedong was a first-generation leader. Deng represented the second generation, and so on, until Xi, who was born in the 1950s and belongs to the fifth. It is the absence of any sixth-generation leader on the PSC that has raised concerns about Xi’s retirement plans, as helicoptering in a president from the 25-member (one woman, 24 men) Politburo would be unprecedented.
Seniority tradition remains firmly in place
During the run-up to the party congress, there was speculation that Xi might keep hold of his anti-corruption tsar, Wang Qishan, breaking an unwritten rule that party members can’t be elevated once they hit 68. But Wang is out of the Politburo, and the lineup of the PSC doesn’t seriously contravene any party norms on ranking by seniority.
Although no one on the current PSC was born in the 1960s, the proportion of “current generation” to “next generation” leaders in the wider Politburo is not unusual. At 63, the average age of a Politburo member in 2017 is only one year older than that of a Politburo member in 2007.
Xi could choose to tear up the rulebook and keep the current PSC on until they’re all septuagenarians, but doing so would be a much more radical move than elevating a less experienced party secretary from the Politburo.
Opposing the will of the party not an option
He also has no need to tear up the rulebook. This year’s party congress saw Xi join the party pantheon, with “Xi Jinping Thought” enshrined in the constitution next to “Mao Zedong Thought.” This elevation makes the succession question a moot point. Opposing Xi is now akin to opposing the will of the party, which is pretty much the worst crime a party member can commit.
Whoever the president or party secretary is in 2023, Xi will still be calling the shots, and he will continue to do so until he goes the way of Mao.
However, keeping the next generation from the pinnacle of power shows that Xi isn’t ready to make this same assumption. Stopping younger leaders from becoming too entrenched too quickly gives Xi great leverage over whoever he chooses for party boss in 2022.
Whether this is a sign of paranoia, or of a more subtle grasp on power than Western media commonly assumes, Xi definitely has his sights on the long game.