China's leaders tug strings of power in retirement

HONG KONG (Reuters) - One former member of China’s top leadership is said to spend his days enjoying Peking opera, another practices Chinese calligraphy and a third likes to tinker with classical musical instruments.

In some respects, Communist China’s retired leaders look like average senior citizens anywhere. For the elders who rose to the top of the one-party People’s Republic, however, leaving work is a world away from a Palm Beach retirement.

In a political system dominated by personalities and patronage networks, retired officials hold significant sway well after giving up their official titles, experts say.

While today’s retired leaders have their activities tightly curtailed and enjoy nothing like the omnipotence wielded by elders during the Deng Xiaoping era, they still count.

“Certain people never retire,” noted one political source with links to Beijing.

Political jockeying ahead of a major Party conclave next month has pitted Party chief Hu Jintao against peers loyal to his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who relinquished his last major post in 2004 but remains influential on the sidelines.

There are historical parallels. Jiang took several years to emerge from the shadow of Deng, who ceded his last official post in 1989 but remained paramount leader until his death in 1997.

In the 1980s and part of the 1990s, the Party was beholden to a coterie of geriatric veterans known as the “Eight Immortals” who were behind all major decisions, and frequently swayed Deng.

In 1987, retired hardliners decided to remove Party chief Hu Yaobang from office for the sin of “bourgeois liberalism.”

Two years later, the elders agreed to use force to clear pro-democracy protesters from Tiananmen Square, and soon thereafter to strip Zhao Ziyang of the post of Party chief for having opposed the decision.


As that generation of Communists who fought in the revolution died off, the clout of retired leaders has faded but not ended. A few nonagenarians, like former vice premier Wan Li, 90, and Hu’s mentor, Song Ping, also 90, remain influential.

Party documents show that elders are still to be consulted on important personnel changes.

In the horse-trading ahead of the 17th Party congress next month, members of the oldest generation such as Song, who is credited with bringing Hu to Deng’s attention more than 15 years ago, can be expected to voice their opinions. And Jiang, as retired leader emeritus, will certainly have his say -- but not the last word.

“They matter,” said Victor Shih, of Northwestern University in the United States. “But the days when one single elder can determine the outcome of an appointment is long over.”

Beijing, too, has taken concrete steps to institutionalize personnel changes, including setting retirement age limits throughout the Party.

Few details are made public of the lives of senior retirees, including Jiang and others in his cohort such as former premiers Zhu Rongji and Li Peng.

The Party does what it can to keep former leaders placated, observers say. The most senior are lavished with homes, offices, secretaries, bodyguards and cars with drivers.

They are also privy to key internal documents, analysts say. From time to time -- usually when it serves the Party’s interests -- some are invited to attend high-profile ceremonial functions such as key anniversaries or funerals.

In part, analysts say, that treatment is about giving them “face,” while also being a protective mechanism.

“Give the old boys respect, give them all the appurtenances of good life in China and they won’t bother you. You’ve got to keep these people in play and on your side,” said Roderick MacFarquhar, an elite politics expert at Harvard University.

“The last thing the people in power want to do is to arouse resentment among very senior people who once held the same positions that they did, so that they feel dissed and then begin to grumble, and then the grumbles reach a public place.”


That phenomenon is not unusual. In February 2006, a group of retired Party officials blasted current leaders for their handling of the media and for closing the investigative newspaper Bingdian, or Freezing Point.

This February, a Party veteran made a rare call for democratic socialism in a state-run journal, stirring a wave of condemnation from within the Party.

And in July, 17 retired officials, academics and military officers accused the Party of bowing to capitalism and urged Hu “to rectify a wrong rule allowing capitalists who refuse to abandon exploitation to join the Party.”

The Party does try to keep its retirees in check.

Memoirs are effectively banned, and any former leaders who want to write their story must gain approval at the highest level. Domestic and international travel requires approval from the Party secretariat.

One particularly vocal elder has been Li Rui, 90, a former secretary of Mao Zedong.

“When someone like him speaks it has reverberations,” said MacFarquhar. “These are not people who can be accused of being young students who have no knowledge of the real world. This is a man who has fought with the Communist Party alongside his comrades for over 60 years.”

Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim