China’s Leadership Is Growing Old

In China’s party-state hierarchy, lower-level cadres are constantly vying for promotions and avoiding being stuck in their current position without progress. The competition is fierce and the rules for advancement are vague, with age being one of the most transparent factors. To successfully climb the career ladder, these lower level cadres must be promoted early enough.

For those who are the most ambitious and fortunate, reaching the provincial-ministerial rank (governors and ministers) is the coveted achievement that opens the door to a national level career. Typically, this rank must be attained in their early 50s, with outstanding cadres hoping for national leadership positions getting there in their 40s.

These age limits were established in 1982, at the onset of the Reform and Opening era, and have been strictly enforced ever since. The regulations dictate that the retirement age for provincial-ministerial level top jobs is 65, while their deputies and other senior cadres must retire at 60.

In 1997, a customary age requirement of 67 was introduced for nominations to the highest national level posts, particularly to the Politburo and its Standing Committee. These age limits were seen as necessary by the leadership to ensure stable and predictable generational changes within the party structures. However, this strict adherence to age limits can also result in the loss of experienced and talented individuals who are forced to retire prematurely.

Xi Jinping’s efforts to extend his rule beyond two terms have led to the abandonment of previously strict and clear regulations on the appointment of party cadres in China. In September 2022, just before the 20th Party Congress, the revised regulations eliminated rigidly defined retirement ages and term limits for party officials.

At the 20th Party Congress, Xi Jinping himself disregarded the two-term limit and rule banning new appointments past the age of 68 for national leaders, and two more members were included in the newly elected Politburo who had passed the retirement age. Despite this, there wasn’t a significant departure from past practices on age and term constraints.

However, the difference now is that the rules are no longer strictly applied, leaving room for exceptions and making promotion paths even more vague and uncertain. The same ambiguity in observing age constraints applies to provincial-level leaders, where age and term limits still appear to be in force.

Half of the provincial party secretaries were changed after the 20th Party Congress, and among the top provincial-level jobs, including governors and mayors, there is no official who was nominated before 2020. However, the new party secretary of Guangdong, Huang Kunming, a long-time follower of Xi Jinping, was appointed at nearly 66 years old – an age suitable for retirement at this level, although he concurrently holds a second term membership in the Politburo. This disregard for established age limits shows a troubling disregard for established rules and a willingness to favor loyalty over competence.

The revised regulations for appointing party cadres in China have thrown the system of succession planning into chaos. In his quest to extend his own rule beyond the customary two terms, Xi Jinping has eliminated the need to groom and promote successors, effectively ending the tradition of carefully selecting and training potential leaders well in advance.

By not indicating any potential successors, Xi has signaled his intention to remain in power indefinitely, leaving the top job out of the race and eliminating the need to look for suitable candidates. This has created a vacuum in the hierarchy, with promotions becoming even more vague and uncertain.

In the past, potential leaders were identified early on and placed on a fast track of promotions, with the aim of reaching the Politburo and ultimately the Standing Committee of the Politburo by their late 50s. The future leader was then chosen from among the Standing Committee members to ensure continuity of leadership practices. However, with Xi’s elimination of the customary age and term limits, the whole dynamic of reshuffling posts at the highest levels has been disrupted.

Potential candidates for top leadership positions are now more vulnerable to factional struggles and challenges from better-positioned opponents, as their fast-track promotions make them easy targets. The case of Bo Xilai, who was not a Standing Committee member, serves as a warning to those who dare to challenge the well- connected candidates. In short, Xi’s power grab has thrown the party-state into turmoil, upending the carefully crafted system of succession planning and leaving the country with an uncertain future