Why China's 'Retired' Leaders Don't Leave Quietly


Under mainland China’s long-standing institutional system, having elders interfere in government has been a serious problem. Some veteran cadres worked conscientiously all their lives, never turning crooked. They retired at 60 – but then found that they can no longer easily supplement their meager salaries. After retirement, it’s hard for them to go out, to see a doctor, or even to live. So in the past few years, we’ve seen the rise of the “59-year-old phenomenon”: some leading cadres, just before retirement, turned especially corrupt in order to provide themselves with a “retirement fund.”

The Chinese idiom that “when a person leaves, the tea gets cold” doesn’t refer literally to tea. Instead, the tea stands for power. Some leading cadres, especially the top local leaders, use the cadre appointment system to promote their own people before retirement. Then, these leaders officially retire but don’t actually retire — they rule from behind the curtains and continue to interfere in politics. It’s almost enough to make one think that China’s 2,000-year-old tradition of dynasties has returned.

These “elders” who are unwilling to leave their official posts (and their trusted followers) are corrupt “tigers.” When it comes to these tigers, the saddest thing is that they have failed to bring any benefits to the people during their long time in office, nor did they make essential and necessary changes to the system. If these “retired” cadres were trying to win power in the name of justice and fairness, it could be accepted. However, that’s not the case. They are simply letting their descendants and followers continue to enjoy the power these cadres arranged while they were still in office. The common people will clap and cheer when these “elders” are taken down and their families are broken up.

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China’s top leaders at all levels of government should seriously ponder this problem. This is not an individual problem; it’s not a question of personal character. If President Xi Jinping’s policy of shutting “power within a cage of regulations” fails, and anti-corruption chief Wang Qishan’s strategy of making all government officials “dare not to, not be able to, and not want to be corrupt” also fails, then the fight for power will always stay this way. In other words, people without power will strive for power and profit by any kind of means, while people losing power will try their best to interfere in politics. And people who achieve power will worry continuously about losing that power. This situation will repeat itself endlessly – is this really what a normal, modern society should look like?

The root of “retired” officials clinging to power lies in the fact that power is unlimited, and that the abuse of power for personal gain is too easy, too common, and too “normal.” The orderly transfer of power is very normal in some countries where public power is restricted and power is really shut in a cage. Officials whose terms expire and retired officials are almost relieved because of the heavy burden being removed. They can continue to “interfere” in politics and discuss state affairs after their retirement – thanks to the balance of powers and media supervision, the whole world knows that their comments are really for the sake of the country, rather than to protect the interests of family members and followers.

But in our country, officials are not clean. They do evil deeds while in power, and then try to continue their good life after retiring by controlling the people in power. If officials were really clean and had contributed to the country, they could call for action and get lots of public support. However, they are not acting for the country, but to maintain their own selfish interests. It makes them look particularly sad and shameful. The repeated pattern lets them know that they are yesterday’s news — their only choice is between waiting for an official investigation and death!

If these officials had known yesterday what they know today, would they have acted differently? If you can restrict your power and control yourself while in office, you won’t feel nervous and afraid after retiring. Of course, I have already said this to two or three generations of officials! Right now, I’m not only speaking to those who have lost power, but to those who still hold power (or are striving for power): don’t be stubborn. History has moved in circles in China for over a hundred years – the tears of the weak and the blood of the strong are mixed together, and there are very few real “winners.”

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

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