The Party Elders Who May Challenge Xi

Succession has always been the Chinese Communists’ Achilles’s heel.

By , Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief.
China's President Xi Jinping during the 13th National People's Congress in 2018.
China's President Xi Jinping during the 13th National People's Congress in 2018.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is glimpsed between curtains after he was elected for a second term during the 13th National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 17, 2018. FRED DUFOUR/AFP via Getty Images

They used to be called the “Eight Immortals”: Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elders who wielded political influence behind the scenes. In the spring of 1989, as street protests and internal power struggles bedeviled strongman Deng Xiaoping, he trotted out seven senior retired officials to help him unify a factionalized leadership and calm an emotional public. Together, the elders purged Deng’s heir apparent, Zhao Ziyang, who had sympathized with the demonstrators, and soldiers were ordered to open fire on civilians. Watching Chinese TV at the time, I was among a group of foreign media and diplomats who could hardly believe it when the aged revolutionaries—most of whom had long faded from public view—were suddenly thrust back into the limelight, standing together on nationwide TV. A Western newspaper reporter beside me muttered, “It’s like I’m watching Night of the Living Dead.”

The challenges facing Xi Jinping are quite different from the bloodshed of the 1989 Tiananmen crisis. But old habits die hard. The 1989 tumult proved once again that succession is the Achilles’s heel of the CCP and, if mishandled, can tarnish the reputations of even the most revered of the nation’s leaders. When Chinese politicking gets messy—especially if personnel changes loom—party elders often reemerge, which helps explain why Xi moved with lightning speed to consolidate power as soon as he became CCP general secretary in 2012. And why he’s scrambling so hard today to keep the retired old guard out of sight and in the dark. To that end, this spring the CCP released new, more stringent guidelines. The guidelines warned senior party figures to keep quiet about top-level policy discussions, avoid politically negative remarks, refrain from influence-peddling, shun “the activities of illegal social organizations,” and, above all, “resolutely oppose and resist all kinds of wrongful thinking.”

Some predict China’s current political tensions will resolve during the 20th Party Congress, due to open Oct. 16. They are wrong. The Party Congress may resolve one question, but it will trigger many more. Xi is widely expected to assume a third term as CCP leader, thus overturning decades-old practices adopted partly to prevent the dysfunctional decision-making that darkened Deng’s legacy in 1989. The fact that Xi has courted controversy and risked political capital to prolong his reign into a third term—and even possibly for life—also means he’s opening a Pandora’s box of political headaches.

They used to be called the “Eight Immortals”: Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elders who wielded political influence behind the scenes. In the spring of 1989, as street protests and internal power struggles bedeviled strongman Deng Xiaoping, he trotted out seven senior retired officials to help him unify a factionalized leadership and calm an emotional public. Together, the elders purged Deng’s heir apparent, Zhao Ziyang, who had sympathized with the demonstrators, and soldiers were ordered to open fire on civilians. Watching Chinese TV at the time, I was among a group of foreign media and diplomats who could hardly believe it when the aged revolutionaries—most of whom had long faded from public view—were suddenly thrust back into the limelight, standing together on nationwide TV. A Western newspaper reporter beside me muttered, “It’s like I’m watching Night of the Living Dead.”

The challenges facing Xi Jinping are quite different from the bloodshed of the 1989 Tiananmen crisis. But old habits die hard. The 1989 tumult proved once again that succession is the Achilles’s heel of the CCP and, if mishandled, can tarnish the reputations of even the most revered of the nation’s leaders. When Chinese politicking gets messy—especially if personnel changes loom—party elders often reemerge, which helps explain why Xi moved with lightning speed to consolidate power as soon as he became CCP general secretary in 2012. And why he’s scrambling so hard today to keep the retired old guard out of sight and in the dark. To that end, this spring the CCP released new, more stringent guidelines. The guidelines warned senior party figures to keep quiet about top-level policy discussions, avoid politically negative remarks, refrain from influence-peddling, shun “the activities of illegal social organizations,” and, above all, “resolutely oppose and resist all kinds of wrongful thinking.”

Some predict China’s current political tensions will resolve during the 20th Party Congress, due to open Oct. 16. They are wrong. The Party Congress may resolve one question, but it will trigger many more. Xi is widely expected to assume a third term as CCP leader, thus overturning decades-old practices adopted partly to prevent the dysfunctional decision-making that darkened Deng’s legacy in 1989. The fact that Xi has courted controversy and risked political capital to prolong his reign into a third term—and even possibly for life—also means he’s opening a Pandora’s box of political headaches.

“The 20th Party Congress will likely mark a stark break from past patterns of political succession,” Jude Blanchette and Evan S. Medeiros wrote in Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, the journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. They continued: “Xi’s next term may be definitive in establishing new norms for elite politics.” Xi has “wrested control of central decision-making from the government bureaucracy,” and with fears of regime survival acute, the next five years will likely feature higher risk tolerance for “severe measures with little regard for international opprobrium”—exemplified, of course, by Xi’s unique and unpopular “zero-COVID” obsession.

Xi has so ruthlessly clamped down on critics that public dissent is extremely rare—but not unknown. On Oct. 13 in Beijing, two startling protest banners appeared in public in Haidian, where a number of university campuses are located. Unfurled on an overpass above a major highway, one declared: “Say no to COVID test, yes to food. No to lockdown, yes to freedom. No to lies, yes to dignity. No to cultural revolution, yes to reform. No to great leader, yes to vote. Don’t be a slave, be a citizen.” The other said: “Go on strike, remove dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping.” Photos and video recorded at the time appeared to indicate smoke on the overpass and a voice recording. Commentary on the banners was quickly scrubbed from social media platforms by vigilant censors. Some people obliquely signaled support for the protester (or protesters) by sharing a Chinese song titled “Lonely Warrior.”


Xi began laying the groundwork for his ambitious power play at least a decade ago. At the same time, he likely developed an early appreciation of the party’s old guard because his father, Xi Zhongxun, was a well-known party elder. As early as 2015, Xi made clear he didn’t want any meddling from the older generation. In a veiled warning apparently aimed at former party chief Jiang Zemin, the official People’s Daily counseled retired leaders that “once people leave, the tea cools down” and urged them to “adjust their mentality” to their retired status.

Since then, Xi has had plenty of time to root out rivals and sideline foot-dragging peers. His main tool for consolidating authority has been a relentless anti-corruption campaign that has snagged many high-level officials. During Xi’s first term, graft busters took down one former member of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee and dozens of lesser officials and generals as part of a high-risk anti-corruption crackdown. Blanchette and Medeiros wrote that the crackdown “was epic by any measure.”

The dragnet also ensnared key figures in the military, security, and intelligence sectors. In 2017, after suggesting that Beijing reverse its heavy-handed policies in the largely Muslim region of Xinjiang, Liu Yazhou, a high-level military officer, vanished from public life, and according to Chinese social media and exiled former party insider Cai Xia, his home was raided. Liu’s father-in-law was the late ex-President Li Xiannian, one of the original Eight Immortals.

In late September, too, senior police official Sun Lijun received a suspended death sentence on official charges of corruption for setting up a “cabal to take control over several key departments” and harboring “evil political qualities.” According to Chinese media reports, his major crime was participating in a clique tied to Jiang, now 96.

Jiang was party chief from 1989 to 2002 and was perceived as having clung to power by remaining head of the party’s powerful Central Military Commission until 2004. Jiang is considered the boss of a so-called “Shanghai clique” in Chinese politics and would be considered one of the most influential of China’s retired top-level officials, though he’s rumored to suffer from ill health. Similarly, his blunt and widely respected premier Zhu Rongji, 93, is also reported to be unwell. Zhu’s health issues haven’t stopped some Chinese analysts from insisting that Zhu is appalled by Xi’s economically disastrous and isolationist anti-COVID policies. One well-connected Chinese source who requested anonymity said Zhu knows that “many people have pinned their hopes on him and expect him to speak out at the right moment.”

But do China’s party elders continue to pull the strings, even in the Xi era? The original 1989 Eight Immortals are gone. At the time, the eight included Deng because his hand-picked successor, Zhao Ziyang, had already become party chief—until Zhao was purged. Deng died in 1997. Their nickname, evoking eight Taoist figures with supernatural powers in Chinese lore, stuck around for a while. Eventually, it came to mean the eight most senior retired party veterans who were still alive. Now, thanks to Xi’s ruthless neutralization of political rivals, most potential challengers in his own generation are co-opted, cowed, acquiescent, or behind bars.

This fact helps explain the wild rumors that began flying recently after party elder Song Ping, a onetime kingmaker who turned 105 this year, appeared in the news. In September, Song was recorded on video addressing a charitable foundation, reportedly something vague about “reform and opening up.” Chinese social media went into hyperdrive. Coup rumors circulated. Internet censors scurried to scrub reports about Song’s comments from cyberspace. Never mind that whatever words Song uttered were either totally innocuous or used in the past by Xi himself.

Song is not regarded as a risk-taking firebrand. He’s seen to be a conservative and wasn’t among the original 1989 Immortals because he was holding an important job at the time: heading the party’s key Central Organization Department. As such, he announced the party’s decision to expel CCP members who had sympathized with the Tiananmen protesters.

But there’s one possible reason to take note of Song’s sudden reappearance. A political player for three generations of Chinese leaders, Song appears in fairly good health and is among the most influential of the surviving 20 or so former members of the party’s key Politburo Standing Committee. Moreover, he’s identified with the tuanpai—the “Youth League faction”—in Chinese politics. The Communist Youth League is aimed at nurturing Chinese youth between the ages of 14 to 28. (Preteens are known as Young Pioneers and are often seen wearing red kerchiefs.) Youth League advocates often seek to promote development and tackle income disparity in China’s poorer inland provinces. That contrasts with champions of the prosperous and glitzier east coast, home turf of the Shanghai clique. Song had risen through the ranks in remote, hardscrabble Gansu province, and he mentored two prominent figures of the Youth League faction, ex-President Hu Jintao (who may have landed on a trajectory for the top job after Song recommended him to Deng) and former Premier Wen Jiabao.

The Youth League faction has not prospered in the era of Xi. His premier, Li Keqiang, is seen as a Youth League figure, but Li’s office and influence has been diminished by Xi’s persistent accumulation of power and establishment of leadership groups with himself at the helm, earning Xi the nickname “chairman of everything.” The Youth League has lost influence bureaucratically, and key figures have been demoted or purged. At one point, Xi criticized Youth League cadres, saying that “all they can do is just repeat the same old bureaucratic, stereotypical talk.” Not only has Li’s authority been clipped, but some unsubstantiated reports state he’s been banned from meeting even casually with party elders.

“Senior retired officials are not supposed to be socializing with senior leaders, except for Xi,” said the Chinese source, who knows a number of top government officials. “This has been the case for years.” Against this backdrop, Song’s reemergence—not what he said but the fact that he was seen at all—has fueled speculation that the party’s Youth League advocates now are pushing behind the scenes for more of their candidates to be promoted during the coming personnel reshuffles. (While the transition is slated to unfold during the Party Congress, government changes will be endorsed next March at the National People’s Congress session.)

Much is at stake. At least two of the seven (not counting Xi) members of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee are expected to retire, as is nearly half of the Politburo, assuming today’s age norms remain in place. Two of China’s most senior diplomats are also due to retire. Last but not least, Li is slated to step down as premier, and all eyes are on who might replace him in this key government role.


Xi is leading Chinese politics into uncharted territory. By jettisoning term limits and other norms that had brought some predictability to post-Deng politics, he has made a lot of enemies. Paradoxically, he has also made life difficult for any chosen successor. Blanchette and Medeiros predict a period of “[s]uccession uncertainty” that won’t end until Xi nominates a “clear and credible successor and establishes a clear and credible timeline for the transfer of power.”

That won’t be easy. As Richard McGregor, an analyst at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute and the author of The Party, which explains the CCP’s inner workings, said, “One of the most dangerous things to be is Xi Jinping’s nominated successor. People can’t attack Xi, but they can line up against anybody he might favor to replace him.”

In the old days, China’s top boss would call in favors from party elders to help navigate the political horse-trading and factional jostling of such a transition. Today, the old guard is more likely to feel alienated from or even angry at Xi than supportive of him. The coming wave of newly retired cadres, meanwhile, will create a fresh tranche of party elders. Even if they lack the revolutionary credentials of the older Immortals, these veterans may have more political savvy than junior colleagues—and more pent-up energy for pushing back, in accordance with a Chinese proverb stating that “aged ginger is spicier.” While in office, fear of being fired or purged likely deterred some from criticizing current policies. Retirement may convince a few that they have nothing left to lose.

Melinda Liu is a Beijing-based foreign-policy commentator, Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief, and the co-author of Beijing Spring.

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