What do Chinese leaders do when they retire?

File photo: Jiang Zemin Former leader Jiang Zemin officially retired in 2004, but is still active in politics

China's newly-retired president, Hu Jintao, will probably never write a gossipy bestseller chronicling his time in Beijing. And the country's outgoing premier, Wen Jiabao, isn't expected to embark on a lucrative speaking tour once he leaves office.

Top politicians from other countries often engage in charitable or diplomatic work when they retire. But in China, there's an unspoken rule that Chinese leaders should step out of the public spotlight when they step down from office.

The very concept of retirement is relatively new in the world of Communist politics. For decades, cadres were expected to follow an old party slogan by "working for the revolution with their last breath and last drop of blood".

In 2002, then-President Jiang Zemin tried to clear the ranks at the top of the party by instituting retirement age limits: 68 for top leaders and 65 for senior level officials.

That rule has been followed with varying degrees of success. Mr Jiang himself delayed his own retirement. He stayed on as the chairman of China's military for two years until 2004 after relinquishing his other positions to his successor, Hu Jintao.

Just this week, the governor of China's Central Bank, Zhou Xiaochuan was allowed to remain in his role past the age of 65. It's thought that Chinese leaders wanted Mr Zhou to continue his successful economic reforms, so they bent the rules to allow him to stay.


The decision was unpopular with users of weibo, China's version of Twitter. "Zhou is not a saviour, and he's not God!" one typical poster complained. "New talents emerge in every generation, and it's the rule of nature to replace the old with the new."

Former US president Bill Clinton Unlike many Western politicians, China's leaders are unlikely to embark on speaking tours

Many Chinese citizens have also been clear in their demand for former Communist cadres to stop meddling in current affairs.

"The last thing we want is to see retired leaders using their political power to serve their private needs behind the scenes, intervening with reform and social progress," says Wu Zuolai, a popular blogger and scholar at the Chinese National Academy of the Arts.

Those demanding a clear line between current and former leaders focus most of their anger on - who else? - former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin.

According to China's state-run media, Mr Jiang vowed to do nothing but work as a university lecturer after retirement. Instead, he became famous for his active role in back-room party politics.

Last year was a particularly busy one for Mr Jiang, 86, as he pushed to secure plum appointments for his protégés ahead of last November's Communist Party leadership transition.

Start Quote

History is far too important a matter to be left to former presidents or former premiers”

End Quote Steve Tsang University of Nottingham

Mr Jiang's office inside Zhongnanhai, the central Beijing compound where the country's elite politicians live and work, was only closed late last year, after China's new Communist Party leader Xi Jinping had come into power.

Some believe retired leaders have no choice but to stay involved in politics because they must ensure the party will not prosecute them for past misdeeds.

However, there is little chance this would actually happen, says Steve Tsang, professor at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. If possible, the Communist Party would avoid opening a Pandora's Box of unnecessary strife by attacking a politician who is no longer in power.

'Controlling history'

Some ageing leaders might yearn to retire in peace, but they are pushed to stay involved in political affairs by those who benefit from their influence.

Even if Hu Jintao wanted to enjoy a life of peaceful seclusion in retirement, Steve Tsang explains, the officials who followed him up the ranks of China's Communist Youth League will push him to stay involved ahead of the next party power transition in 2017.

"Those people will have a vested interest to make sure Hu Jintao is not completely out and won't fade into retirement fully," Dr Tsang says. "They want to be sure that the Youth League remains a fully coherent power block."

Hu Jintao Hu Jintao may not be allowed to enjoy a quiet life, despite his retirement

Behind the scenes, retired leaders are busy but one rule is clear: they are expected to stay away from the country's history books.

Some politicians might be tempted to write memoirs of their time in office, but the Communist Party will discourage their personal accounts from entering the public record.

"You're not going to get it published unless it has received official permission for publication, which means it will be very, very heavily vetted," says Dr Tsang.

Even the most senior former leaders cannot escape China's censors.

Li Peng, who acted as China's premier from 1987 to 1998, is thought to have written a relatively conservative explanation of his involvement in 1989's Tiananmen Square crackdown. However, it was banned from publication.

Another former premier, Zhao Ziyang, was forced to smuggle his account of the Tiananmen events to a publishing house in Hong Kong.

"History is far too important a matter to be left to former presidents or former premiers," Mr Tsang explains.

"History is something which the party must maintain very careful control over. After all, the party has a monopoly on the truth. Controlling history is a way of monopolising the truth."

As former leaders feel their way through the gilded cage of retirement, they can gather strength in the knowledge that soon, their ranks will swell. Five of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the elite group which steers the Communist Party, are set to step down in 2017.

Perhaps, by that point, Zhou Xiaochuan, the industrious bank governor, will be ready to greet them.

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