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For China's Top Leaders — Other Than Xi — Age Is More Than Just a Number

FILE - New members of the Politburo Standing Committee, from left, Han Zheng, Wang Huning, Li Zhanshu, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, Zhao Leji stand together on Oct. 25, 2017, the day after the end of the 19th Communist Party Congress.
FILE - New members of the Politburo Standing Committee, from left, Han Zheng, Wang Huning, Li Zhanshu, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, Zhao Leji stand together on Oct. 25, 2017, the day after the end of the 19th Communist Party Congress.

The 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party this fall will determine China's political direction for the next five years.

A key agenda item hinges on the answer to one question posed to members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the most important policy-making group in China:

What is your age?

Implicit is that Xi Jinping, the 69-year-old general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and president of China, need not answer.

But for other members of the PSC, age is more than just a number. Sixty-eight is the accepted retirement age for the committee members, who are on both sides of that milestone:

Li Keqiang: Premier of the State Council. Born in July 1955, 67 years old.

Li Zhanshu: Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. Born in August 1950, 72 years old.

Wang Yang: Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Born in March 1955, 67 years old.

Wang Huning: First Secretary of the Central Secretariat. Born in October 1955, turning 67 years old.

Zhao Leji: Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Born in March 1957, 65 years old.

Han Zheng: Executive Vice Premier. Born in April 1954, 68 years old.

Commonly referred to as qishang baxia or "seven up, eight down," the convention holds that if a PSC member is 68 or older at the time of a party congress, retirement looms. If a PSC member is 67 or younger, he — and all members are males — retains his PSC seat to serve another five-year term.

According to this rule, three of the current members: Xi (69), Li Zhanshu (72) and Han Zheng (68), should step down at this fall's 20th Party Congress.

The likelihood of Xi stepping down is virtually nil. During the congress, an event held every five years, he is expected to be appointed to an unprecedented third term as leader of the Chinese Communist Party.

No written rule

The mandatory retirement age is not in any CCP official regulation or document.

Christopher Johnson, a senior fellow on Chinese politics at Asia Society Policy Institute, pointed out that this is by design, as even the CCP's constitution has very few rules.

"Unlike political parties in Western parliamentary or constitutional systems, the CCP does not consider itself subject to frameworks such as the constitution or even the law," he wrote in an Asia Society report published in August.

Johnson said an informal age limit was first introduced at the 15th Party Congress in 1997, which set 70 as the cutoff. In 2002, at the 16th Party Congress, the age limit was lowered to 68. The same limit was observed in the 17th and 18th Party Congress, making "seven up, eight down" the unspoken norm.

Li Ling, a lecturer of Chinese politics at the University of Vienna, said at an online panel hosted by the Asia Society on August 10 that she expects Xi to be an exception to the age limit, which she anticipates he will enforce for others.

"The age limit is the only exit mechanism to end a Politburo Standing Committee member's tenure. It is very objective and easy to enforce fairly," she said.

Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund, told Axios that Xi's goal this fall is to "put his own people on the Politburo Standing Committee and the Politburo."

No plans for Xi to depart

The party resolution eliminating term limits puts Xi in the unlimited-terms category of former CCP Chairman Mao Zedong. He served as party leader from 1935 until his death on September 9, 1976.

In 2017, Xi broke precedent by not promoting a successor-in-training at the 19th Party Congress. The following year, he maneuvered the abolition of a two-term limit for party presidents.

"Xi Jinping is taking China back to a personalistic dictatorship after decades of institutionalized collective leadership," said Susan Shirk, an expert on Chinese politics and professor at the University of California, San Diego. "He has clearly signaled his intention to remain in office after his normal two terms end in 2022," she added in a 2018 analysis published in the Journal of Democracy.

At home, Xi has won widespread support over his campaign on corruption, his theory of common prosperity and projecting Chinese strength to the world.

But Xi's zero-COVID policy has led to a high unemployment rate and social discontent. The middle-class is boycotting mortgage payments. And on the world stage, there is tension in U.S.-China relations in many areas, including technology, trade and Taiwan.

Xia Ming, a political science professor at the City University of New York, told VOA Mandarin in a video interview that he doesn't think Xi has a 100% chance to secure his third term.

"With the current domestic and international situation, there's heightened probability for a major change in Chinese politics," he said, "so I think Xi only has a 50-50 chance to secure a third term."

Victor Shih, an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego and an expert on the politics of China's elite, told VOA Mandarin via phone, "I think there's no doubt (that Xi will serve a third term), there's no real opposition force within the Party to challenge Xi's power."