Why Can’t Ex-Chinese Leaders Travel Abroad?

Xi Jinping’s secret strategy for dealing with China’s powerful retired elite.


For Chinese President Xi Jinping, all politics is hyperlocal. His electorate consists of the political elite: the hundreds of sitting and retired Chinese leaders, generals, and power brokers clustered in and around the seat of government in Beijing’s Zhongnanhai. Shortly after taking office in 2012, Xi launched a widespread campaign to eradicate corruption at both the bottom and the top of the Chinese Communist Party. This anti-corruption campaign is the signature fight of Xi’s presidency — and for him a priority over “life, death, and reputation,” he reportedly told the Politburo, China’s elite 25-member ruling body, in a June 2014 speech.

Xi seems to be focusing his anti-corruption campaign on retired members of the elite: not in quantity, per se — far more low-level officials have been sacked or arrested — but in intensity. Xi has targeted men like Zhou Yongkang, a retired official who formerly served in the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), the group of seven men at the apex of the Communist Party; and Gens. Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, who both served in the Politburo. Zhou is now serving a life sentence in prison; Guo is under investigation for corruption charges; and Xu, detained on charges of corruption in early 2014, died in March of cancer. In 2012, men like Zhou elected Xi as president. If this anti-corruption campaign should fail, members of the elite could depose him.

Xi’s strategy for dealing with this threat, like that of his predecessors, is to keep friends close and potential enemies closer. In doing so, Xi has drawn on a decades-old obscure but powerful party tradition. According to interviews with several people close to the ruling party leadership, ex-Politburo members are not allowed to travel overseas without permission from the current PBSC. “It’s the accepted custom,” said someone with ties to the leadership, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue. This rule applies to dozens of members of China’s political elite, including both living ex-presidents: Jiang Zemin, rumored to be under suspicion for corruption, and Hu Jintao, who is untainted by allegations of graft, said someone with ties to the leadership.

A Chinese expert on China’s leadership, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the rule is so tight that there are likely few cases of ex-Politburo members traveling abroad since the death of Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1976. “In China, ex-leaders basically don’t leave the country,” said David Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

There are rules governing the travel of current Politburo members — they cannot go overseas more than once a year, except for special work-related circumstances, and they must generally keep their trips within 3-5 days, according to a 1989 regulation. It is unclear, however, if there is a specific regulation governing whether or not former Chinese leaders are permitted to travel overseas. Elite politics in China “is a huge black box,” said Lampton. Bo Zhiyue, the director of Victoria University of Wellington’s New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre and an expert on elite Chinese politics, speculates that former Politburo members don’t possess personal passports: They use official passports, held at the General Office, a party body that handles the administrative affairs of the Politburo and other government organs. “If you don’t have a passport, you can’t travel abroad,” he said.

Apart from that they might be a target of his anti-corruption campaign, there are several other possible reasons why Xi might benefit from restricting former Chinese leaders from traveling overseas. He is, perhaps, paranoid about defection or personal embarrassment. “These people have a lot of secrets,” said Bo. Former Politburo members may have “inside information that is detrimental to the image of the party,” he said. “If there is a way to block that person [from leaving], they will do so.”

Xi, who has consolidated power faster than his two recent predecessors, Jiang and Hu, may also fear that former leaders could distract attention from the current Politburo. “It is apparently a method to make room for the existing leadership, so that the previous leadership does not upstage” the current ones, said Dali Yang, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. It also limits their ability to engage in unwanted policymaking — not unlike when ex-U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang in 1994. Carter, who had a relationship with longtime North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung, was there on behalf of then-U.S. President Bill Clinton to help solidify a nuclear deal: Carter reportedly negotiated beyond what the administration was willing to give. “In the United States, an ex-president is a valuable asset,” said Bo. “In China, they don’t want these people to come back to politics. They keep them as far away as possible.”

Consider the March funeral of Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, a man who maintained close relations with both the United States and China. Clinton led the U.S. delegation to the funeral. China sent current Politburo member and Vice President Li Yuanchao. “Foreign policy historically has been very carefully managed, and China places a lot of emphasis on making sure that’s still the case,” said Yang. Keeping former Chinese leaders at home prevents them from engaging in maverick policymaking.

And Beijing would likely be displeased were they to travel around the world consulting, like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, or giving six-figure speeches, like Clinton — especially since Xi launched his anti-corruption campaign. On the one hand, one Chinese professor with high-level ties, who asked to speak anonymously, said that Chinese leaders “don’t need to make money” like Blair and Clinton. Indeed, it’s widely believed that many former Chinese leaders are extremely wealthy, due to deals facilitated for relatives by high-level connections during time in office.

That wealth, however, can be a liability. In an investigation published in April 2014, the New York Times found that three of Zhou’s relatives hold or held stakes “in at least 37 companies scattered across a dozen provinces, from Audi dealerships to property firms.” More than a year before Beijing sentenced Zhou to life in prison in June for accepting bribes, among other crimes, it reportedly seized at least $14.5 billion in assets from his family members and his associates.

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The no-travel rule does seem to allow for a bit of flexibility. The Chinese expert on China’s leadership emphasized that it doesn’t include the special Chinese territories of Hong Kong or Macau, and he speculated that ex-Politburo members may have gone abroad secretly — unknown to the public and also possibly unknown to Beijing. The rule also appears to discount those who travel because they have a new job: Consider, for example, the case of Zeng Peiyan, who served in the Politburo from 2002 to 2007. Now, as chairman of the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, an economic research consultancy, Zeng regularly travels overseas. Zeng visited Malaysia in June, and in early November he spoke at a conference in London. Still, it’s extremely rare for an ex-Politburo member to secure a high-profile job that allows him to travel overseas. “Zeng is truly an exception,” said Bo.

So, if they’re not traveling overseas, then what are ex-leaders doing? Their lives out of office are far more similar to ex-President George W. Bush, famous for painting on his Texas ranch, or ex-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who retired to a farm in Pennsylvania to raise cattle, than they are to the lives of Clinton and Blair. Party propaganda tries to portray their lives as simple and modest, their habits austere. Li Lanqing, who served in the PBSC under Jiang from 1997 to 2002 and is known for his love of classical music, designs Chinese seals and reportedly tried to get a job working at a small restaurant. (Of course, it’s difficult to determine what they’re actually doing: None of the living ex-leaders mentioned in this story were reachable for comment; the party’s Organization Department, which handles personnel, couldn’t be reached for comment; and the Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.) Many former Chinese leaders write books or memoirs. And some, like Jiang, stay publicly, though subtly, active in politics.

Part of the reason so few ex-Politburo members have traveled overseas in the 66 years that the party has ruled China is that until roughly two decades ago, not many survived long enough to retire. Mao Zedong died in office in September 1976, as did longtime marshal and PBSC member Zhu De in July of that year and Premier Zhou Enlai in January. Mao’s 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, an anarchic campaign that upended China’s social and political order, saw other top officials meet less graceful ends: Shortly after Mao’s designated successor, Marshal Lin Biao, broke with the chairman, he died in a mysterious 1971 plane crash. And some died in chains: Liu Shaoqi, China’s president until the late 1960s, died in 1969 after several years of torture.

After Mao died, the Politburo became a much safer place for its members: Mao’s successors didn’t possess the power (or perhaps the stomach) to murder their opponents. When Deng Xiaoping came to power a few years later, many of China’s elite were tired of the devastating infighting that characterized the Mao years. Riding the prevailing political wind, and mindful of his sometimes precarious position as China’s paramount leader in the 1980s and 1990s, Deng arrested his top party opponents, kept them under de facto house arrest, or sidelined them — but didn’t murder them. Consider, for example, the Gang of Four — Politburo members, blamed for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution — all of whom served long terms in prison.

Deng’s successors, Jiang and Hu, both oversaw the arrest and imprisonment of a few of their high-ranking political enemies, but not on the scale of today. More than any leader since Deng, Xi is reviving the Maoist tradition of imprisoning ex-leaders. He has taken down several ex-Politburo members — most spectacularly Zhou, China’s former security czar. Perhaps because of his aggressive anti-corruption campaign, Xi’s position among the political elite may be precarious. In April 2014, ex-President Hu visited Mao’s home province of Hunan, which some analysts interpreted — through the foggy lens of party symbolism — as a critique of Xi’s stern Maoism. But don’t count on Hu taking his message overseas anytime soon. Xi will likely want him close and quiet, perhaps to the detriment of China’s political stability. “The tension is much higher,” said Bo — all these powerful ex-Politburo members, “stuck in one country and unable to leave.”


Image credit by LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish