Compulsory retirement irks 'old guard' By Wu Zhong, China Editor
HONG KONG - Former politburo member and vice premier Tien Jiyun recently made a
public call for retired officials not to meddle in political affairs, prompting
speculation about an intensifying political struggle over a reshuffle expected
at the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) 18th National Congress in 2012.
Tien made the appeal in an article published in the latest issue of the
outspoken Chinese-language monthly magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn
in China), whose editorial board and contributors include retired, open-minded
party heavyweights and officials, and former state media journalists.
Some overseas China-watchers say Tien was alluding to former president Jiang
Zemin, who some claim has tried to retain influence since his full retirement
in 2004. However, political
observers in Beijing say Tien's message was actually a warning for those soon
due to step down.
Compulsory retirement for officials is a relatively new thing in China,
compared with a centuries-old tradition of lifetime tenure for senior
officials. The influence of the tradition remains, and it may take some time
for the compulsory retirement system to take root, both in practice and in
The lifetime tenure system for officials, especially senior officials,
prevailed throughout China's dynastic history until the coming of Mao Zedong.
No emperor gave up his reign willingly. The only exception was the Qianlong
emperor (1711-1799, reign 1735-1796), the fourth ruler of the Qing Dynasty. He
passed the reign to his son, honoring a promise that he would stay in power no
more than 60 years. However, even after his retirement he retained firm control
of state affairs and the emperor was just a puppet. Though his after-retirement
title taishang huang literally meant "father of the emperor", it would
better be translated as "emperor of the emperor".
As with rulers, senior officials could not retire without permission of the
emperor in the dynastic era, regardless of age or illness. This was illustrated
in a well-known saying by Zhuge Liang, a politician in the Three Kingdoms
Period (220 -280), "I'll bend my back to my task until my dying day."
The 1911 nationalist revolution led by Dr Sun Yat-sen ended the dynastic era.
But the tradition of lifetime tenure continued. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek
held power until his last breath, even after he was driven to Taiwan from the
mainland in 1949. Mao died as CCP chairman and popular premier Zhou Enlai
stayed in charge until his last moment. During Mao's era and even for sometime
afterwards, a motto among Chinese officials was, "As long as I can breathe,
I'll continue working for the revolutionary cause."
It was Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader and reformer, who endeavored to
break the tradition. In his article on Yanhuang Chunqiu, entitled "Some
Personal Experience in My Political Career", Tien recalled this episode: "After
the third plenum of the party's 11th Central Committee [in 1978], Comrade
Xiaoping energetically advocated to juvenilize cadres, proposing to abolish the
actual lifetime tenure system for cadres."
He goes on to praise his one-time boss, reformist party general secretary Hu
Yaobang. "Comrade Yaobang put [Deng's idea] into practice with effort and made
great contributions to [the] juvenilization of cadres, with many young cadres
promoted at all levels. Comrade Hu Yaobang had repeatedly said that it was long
enough for a minister to work until 65, and for a central leader to work until
No doubt it was Hu who initiated the idea of setting an age limit for an
official to retire. But ironically, and Tien fails to mention this, such an
idea offended Deng and the old guard who wanted to remain in power behind the
scenes. This became a major reason for the old guard to remove Hu in 1987
(though the official reason was because of his weakness in dealing with student
protests in several cities in 1986-87.)
Equally ironically, while Deng was a chief advocate for abolishing lifetime
tenure and took the lead in retiring from official titles, he never really gave
up control. During his retirement he removed two party chiefs - Hu Yaobang and
Zhao Ziyang. After the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen crackdown, he told military
leaders that "it is fortunate that we [the old guard] are still here" so that
the "turmoil" could be properly handled. He was not a king, but a kingmaker.
And like Qianlong, he was not the emperor but the "emperor of the emperor".
Merit thus must be given to Jiang Zemin for the actual end of the lifetime
tenure system and the implementation of compulsory retirement. Under Jiang's
reign, Hu's proposal for setting an age limit for an official to step down was
institutionalized. A central leader must retire at 70, a minister-level
official at 65 and someone at the lower ranks at 60. Jiang resigned as party
general secretary in 2002, at the party's 16th congress, and then the state
presidency in March 2003 and the chairmanship of the Central Military
Commission in 2004. Tien, now 81, also retired during that period.
After the establishment of the compulsory retirement system, according to Tien,
it was important that retired officials, especially leaders, refrained from
intervening in the operations of the current government.
"The crux of the matter is to 'retire'. After retirement, a leading cadre must
have a good 'rest' ... to enjoy the happiness of family life. They should never
ever try to use all kinds of guanxi [connections] to meddle in 'state
affairs', telling incumbent leaders what to do and what not to do ... They must
be aware that a new generation will replace the old one, as in the Yangtze
River where the waves behind drive on those ahead. With the absence of a
person, whoever it may be, the Earth will continue to rotate and probably
rotate better," he writes.
It is these words that prompted speculation that Tien was alluding to Jiang,
who has made public appearances from time to time since his retirement. Tien
may want to tell Jiang to keep his hands off arrangements for the 18th party
congress. It cannot be ruled out that Jiang indeed wants to retain his
influence, like Deng, but political observers in Beijing say he is no
"strongman" like Deng was.
With the fall of the "Shanghai clique" after the disgrace of former Shanghai
party chief Chen Liangyu in 2006, Jiang's influence has noticeably diminished.
It is evident that during the ongoing reshuffle of provincial leaders, more
officials working with the Communist Youth League - President Hu Jintao's power
base - were appointed.
Tien's words are better read as a general warning to all officials, retirees or
incumbents, as one Beijing observer who declined to be named said:
the 18th party congress two years from now, Hu Jintao, [Premier] Wen Jiabao and
many other senior party and government officials are set to retire due to their
age. Will all of them step down willingly? Are there some who will try to stay
for a bit longer? More importantly, are there some who will try to make
arrangements so that they can retain their influence after retirement? I think
Tien makes the remarks as an early warning. After all, the compulsory
retirement system is quite a new thing in Chinese officialdom and needs to be
fostered, cherished, safeguarded and perfected. Tien, who is witness of the
revolutionary change, is a good person to deliver such a warning.
Ironically, after Tien published the article he was criticized by some bloggers
for being "restless" after his retirement, since he has written from time to
time on Yanhuang Chunqiu and alluded to state affairs. It seems influence of
tradition is not so easy to be completely dispelled in a short period of time.