The Straits Times
Published on Nov 15, 2012

Older team means 5 of 7 new leaders will retire at next congress


BEIJING - In 1981, Communist Party elder Chen Yun bemoaned the lack of young leaders in its elite ranks.

"Our cadre corps today have a serious problem, the gap between the young and the old. Nearly every day the death of another of the old veterans is reported...," said the man who is regarded as one of the People's Republic's founding fathers.

"The fact that younger men must be promoted is a problem that was raised long ago."

The party has since, with varying degrees of success, tried to end its gerontocracy.

Lifetime tenure of the Mao Zedong era was ended. An unofficial retirement age of 68 has been introduced.

Promotion of younger men, which Chen urged, was practised. Retired leader Hu Jintao, for instance, was brought into the supreme Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) in 1992 when he was 49.

Mr Hu had joined the party's Central Committee at age 39 and made a provincial party boss at 42. He was the youngest person to achieve those milestones.

After the death of strongman Deng Xiaoping, the average ages of the Standing Committee had been on a gradual downward slide in the last 15 years.

But that trend ended on Nov 15. The average age of the new seven-man body is now 63.4 years, an increase from the 62 years of the last two committees.

This does not bode well for the party's hopes of continuity, predictability and stability.

Five of the seven, or 71 per cent, in the new PSC will have to retire at the next congress because they would have bust the age limit.

For example, presumptive top advisor Yu Zhengsheng, who was formerly boss of Shanghai, is only five months shy of his 68 birthday. He barely made the cut in this transition.

In the new team, only new Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, 59, and the incoming premier Li Keqiang, 57, can serve two terms, till 2022.

This does not compare favourably with China's last major leadership change in 2002.

Then, only four of the nine members chosen, or 44 per cent, could serve just one term.

That means a majority of that Standing Committee qualified for two terms - ensuring continuity in policies.

But now, this older new team has been chosen largely because politics and patronage have overshadowed good practises.

All five older leaders in the PSC are known to be close to former strongman Jiang Zemin, who was rumoured to be dying last year.

Predictably, the 86-year-old wanted, and succeeded, in stacking the committee with his allies so that he has a say in the country in his last years.

Still, if this older make-up is bad for the party, it could turn out to be a boon for Mr Xi.

At the next congress in 2017, he will have the chance to replace five of his team and, possibly, fill the slots with people of his choice.

While he may still have to contend with two retired leaders in Mr Jiang and Mr Hu, it is a fair bet to say that the ageing pair are not likely to have as much influence in five years as today.

Mr Jiang will be 91 and his waning health could prevent him from pushing as hard as he did for the 18th Party Congress.

And Mr Hu, having failed to keep his military post and promote allies into the PSC, is already among the most lame duck of the Communist Party's retired supremos.

So come 2017, when he embarks on his second term, Mr Xi could truly form a team made up largely of his allies and hence push through his agenda more forcefully and quickly.

It is a privilege which Mr Hu never enjoyed in his decade in power. If Mr Xi could pull it off, his second term would be the one to watch.