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Politics

China seen removing barriers to Xi third term

Communist Party looks to change retirement 'rule' as president shows ambition to stay leader for longer

BEIJING -- The Chinese Communist Party will rethink its customary retirement age at its congress this fall, which could allow President Xi Jinping a third term and accelerate his efforts to consolidate power around himself.

The retirement age was first introduced at the 1997 party congress under then-President Jiang Zemin. Initially, any senior official aged 70 or above at the time of the twice-a-decade gathering had to step down. The cut-off was then lowered to 68 in 2002. A custom rather than a hard-and-fast rule, it has nevertheless been followed by former President Hu Jintao and many others.

The party's view is that there is no definitive rule on retirement age

Communist Party insider

Xi will be 69 by the time of the 2022 party congress, which would mark the end of this second term as general secretary. Normally, he would be expected to step down. But given the variety of problems expected to plague China around that time, from an economic slowdown to a rapidly aging population, there are growing calls within the party for stable, long-term leadership.

"The party's view is that there is no definitive rule on retirement age," according to person familiar with talks at the party's core. "Compared to other world leaders, 68 is still young."

The Communist Party is expected to confirm this view at this year's congress. Xi delivered a speech to party members in July regarding the party's goals toward its centennial in 2049. His remarks, a likely test-run for his big address at the congress, were considered a sign he intended to lead for the long-haul.

Of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee -- the elite group that governs China -- only Xi and Premier Li Keqiang are under the retirement threshold. The next youngest, 69-year-old Wang Qishan, has served as Xi's right arm and leads his crackdown on graft. Xi is also looking to keep Wang in place to ensure his second term starts off on solid footing. But Wang faces opposition within the party for his anti-corruption role, and Xi is said to be having difficulty building support for retaining him.

Xi has also proposed reviving the Mao-era post of party chairman, which was abolished in 1982 and wielded significant authority over the party, government and the military. Mao Zedong remained chairman for more than three decades until his death. If Xi succeeds, he could ensure he stays China's leader regardless of his age or term limits.

In line with new retirement guidelines, the party is also considering changing a constitutional provision that limits the president to two five-year terms, as well as party rules that keep the general secretary from serving more than two terms in a row -- both of which would allow Xi to remain in control for longer.

Still, even some in the Communist Party acknowledge that Mao's long, one-man hold on power led to the Cultural Revolution and other social disruption. Wary of repeating past mistakes, the party could impose some type of limit to keep Xi from indefinitely remaining in control.

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