On October 23, the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finally ended, with a dramatic closing ceremony. It was a jaw-dropping event even for the most jaded China observers.
Interestingly, the least surprising electoral outcome was Xi Jinping’s securing of a third term as general party secretary (GPS). It was unsurprising for at least two related reasons. First, there is no institutional constraint preventing him from seeking a third term, and second, Xi had already signaled his intention to stay in power in 2018, when he lifted the two-term limit for the president of the PRC. Removing that restriction allows Xi to prolong the practice of trinitarianism, a CCP doctrine that vests power over the party, the state, and the military in the hands of one person.
What was, however, surprising regarding the electoral outcome of the 20th Party Congress was the total demobilization of the Youth League, a fact manifested by the premature exits from the Politburo of all three bannermen of that group. This fact was further amplified by the humiliating removal from the center stage of the Party Congress of Hu Jintao, who once chaired the Youth League.
Now that the drama has dissipated, we need to ask the deeper questions, ones that go beyond the specific choices of personnel in this leadership reshuffle and will have a long-term impact on Politburo politics. For instance, what has happened to the age limit norm, the most easily observable regulatory pattern that had stabilized Politburo politics for more than two decades? Has Xi “upended” this norm at this Party Congress, as pronounced by the Wall Street Journal?
In this essay, I will first unpack what this age limit norm means in an effort to clear out some widespread flawed observations. Then I will explain to what extent the age limit norm has been observed, or, from the reverse perspective, violated, based on an analysis of 37 cases concerning membership status changes at the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) at the 20th Congress.* Lastly, I will flag two significant counterfactuals, namely, some clearly marked paths that Xi did not take, and their possible ramifications.
What Is the Age Limit Norm?
The CCP’s age limit norm refers to a non-democratic but relatively transparent mechanism that regulates both the exits of sitting members of the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and the accessions of new members to these bodies. This mechanism provides the party and its top leader a valuable instrument for reinvigorating its elite corps and redistributing power on a large scale in a peaceful manner. Given its qualities just mentioned, I concluded in my previous piece published in The Diplomat magazine that it would be against the CCP’s and Xi’s own interest to break this norm.
The age limit norm regulates membership in all five CCP decision-making bodies at the national level, but, for the sake of brevity, I will limit my analysis only to two: the Politburo and the PSC. I exclude the general party secretary from this analysis because, as I have explained elsewhere, the GPS enjoys more privileges than other PSC members and his position is the least regulated among all.
To better facilitate the analysis, I also unpack the age limit norm to three sets of rules, which contrasts with the single-level, single-dimensional understanding of this norm that has dominated current analyses. For the purpose of this analysis, the age limit rules concerning the Politburo and the PSC consist of:
- Rule of departure: Sitting members from either group must depart if they are 68 or older at the time of election.
- Rule of renewal: Sitting PSC members are entitled to and sitting Politburo members are eligible to be considered for membership renewal in their respective groups if they are under 68 at the time of election.
- Rule of promotion: No one at the age of or above 68 should be promoted to either group from a lower-ranking decision-making body.
The “End” of the Age Limit Norm?
First, the 20th Party Congress fully observed the rule of departure at the PSC. Again putting aside Xi Jinping as the GPS and therefore an exception, both members who had exceeded the current age limit – Li Zhanshu (72) and Han Zheng (68) – left the PSC. The same rule has been largely observed at the Politburo. At the time of election, 10 ordinary Politburo members (those who were not concurrently members of the PSC) were at or over the age of 68. Nine of them retired, as dictated by the rule. The rule was breached in only one instance: Zhang Youxia (72), who was re-elected to the Politburo and became the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Next, the rule of renewal. First, it is necessary to stress again that the rule is applied differently to PSC members and ordinary Politburo members. Members of the PSC, who are decision-makers at the highest rank, enjoy certain prerogatives that are not granted to ordinary Politburo members. Such prerogatives include the entitlement to stay barring the age limit. Unlike PSC members, ordinary age-eligible Politburo members do not have the entitlement to stay. Past practices show that while their membership renewal is regularly granted, it can also be denied for unspecified reasons in exceptional cases.
We have witnessed age-eligible ordinary Politburo members being denied a membership renewal at the 16th Party Congress election overseen by Jiang Zemin in 2002 (one case, Li Tieying, who was 66 at the time), at the 18th Party Congress election overseen by Hu Jintao in 2012 (one case, concerning Wang Lequan, who was not yet 68 when the congress convened), and, on an expanded scale, at the 19th Party Congress election overseen by Xi Jinping in 2017 (three cases concerning Li Yuanchao, Liu Qibao, and Zhang Chunxian), which are all within the remit of the rule.
At this congress, the rule of renewal was violated at the PSC because of the premature exits of Li Keqiang (67) and Wang Yang (67). At the same time, the CCP has also made an effort to salvage the norm by offering an account that attributes their exits to their self-sacrificing decision to voluntarily retire so as to make space for younger leaders to rise up. This creates some room to revive the norm for future application. The rationale would appear to be that if one forfeits his prerogative, that choice shall not annul the prerogative for others or at a different time.
The rule of renewal was, however, not violated at the Politburo. At the time of the election, 10 members were under 68 and eligible for a term renewal. This cohort had enjoyed a noticeable competitive advantage vis-a-vis contenders from the Central Committee, since three of them were granted a renewal and four were promoted to the PSC. Only two were pushed out of the Politburo: Chen Quanguo and Hu Chunhua. Hu Chunhua’s departure, being the youngest of the cohort (59), is indeed unexpected, given his competitive advantages in age, experience, and ranking seniority. Nevertheless, since, as explained earlier, the renewal of Politburo membership is subject not only to the age limit but also other factors, his exit is not a violation of the rule.
Lastly, the rule of promotion has been closely observed at the PSC. All four newcomers are under 68. Thirteen people were newly inducted into the Politburo, 12 of whom were under 68 at the time of election, conforming with the rule. The only violation concerns Wang Yi, the current minister of foreign affairs.
All in all, in 37 cases, including the departing and remaining incumbents and first-time newcomers at both the Politburo and the PSC, we have witnessed 33 cases conforming with the age limit norm, two “hard” violations, and two “soft” or amendable violations. Given that the two hard cases of violation concern positions of the military and foreign relations respectively, the violations can be considered as exceptions and justified due to the heightened concern for security in this congressional term.
Admittedly, these violations have softened the binding force of the norm that had stabilized Politburo politics for more than two decades. Nevertheless, the age limit norm remains a predominate mechanism that regulates leadership turnover.
What Did Not Happen?
Equally conspicuous at the 20th Party Congress are the paths that Xi did not take. Such paths include, most notably, an enlargement of the PSC and the reactivation of the party chairmanship. Both were established practice in the past and could not conceivably have eluded Xi’s mind. Therefore, Xi’s inactions speak at the same volume, if not louder, as the actions of violations mentioned above.
First, enlargement of the PSC would have been an easier alternative to Xi’s chosen path of pushing out two age-eligible sitting PSC members. Instead of denying Li Keqiang and Wang Yang – or, to be consistent with the party’s own narrative, failing to dissuade them from forfeiting – their prerogative to stay, Xi could have enlarged the PSC to nine seats, keeping Li and Wang while allowing all four of Xi’s loyalists in. The size of the PSC has always been flexible.
Xi is certainly fully aware of this option, because he has just resized the Politburo at this very congress. Why did he take the harder approach, violating the valuable age limit norm, to achieve something that he could have achieved in a manner that is less antagonizing to other power-holders? Why was it so imperative for him to push Li and Wang out of the PSC?
The second path Xi did not take is the reactivation of the party chairmanship. As I explained elsewhere, “chairman” is the highest title that a CCP leader can strive for. That position would provide Xi with greater commanding power, security, and prestige. This is something that Xi, as steeped in party history as he is, must be fully aware of and would have had a realistic chance to achieve. After having demonstratively demobilized any possible opposition against him at the Politburo, it is hard to imagine that a motion to reactivate the CCP chairmanship, if it were made, could have been effectively challenged.
The combination of the seemingly careless violations of the age limit norm and the disciplined self-constraint to hold back from claiming the CCP chairmanship paints a curious picture of Xi’s mindset. He chose a more radical and costly approach over a more accommodating and collaborative one in order to establish total informal control over the PSC. Yet, at the same time, he disregarded the opportunity to solidify this newly gained power advantage into formal power.
Is the paradox meant to demonstrate that he has grabbed power not for self-glorification and vanity but only because it is needed to achieve his “New Era” political project? Or is it because making a claim to the party chairmanship is yet too divisive an issue – one that would pose a threat to CCP unity, more so than unseating Hu Jintao at the closing ceremony of the congress? History will tell.
* The 37 cases pertain to membership status changes of all sitting members of the 19th Politburo and the PSC (excluding the GPS) as well as newly admitted members promoted from the Central Committee at the 20th Congress.