| HONG KONG
HONG KONG One former member of China's top
leadership is said to spend his days enjoying Peking opera,
another practices Chinese calligraphy and a third likes to
tinker with classical musical instruments.
In some respects, Communist China's retired leaders look
like average senior citizens anywhere. For the elders who rose
to the top of the one-party People's Republic, however, leaving
work is a world away from a Palm Beach retirement.
In a political system dominated by personalities and
patronage networks, retired officials hold significant sway
well after giving up their official titles, experts say.
While today's retired leaders have their activities tightly
curtailed and enjoy nothing like the omnipotence wielded by
elders during the Deng Xiaoping era, they still count.
"Certain people never retire," noted one political source
with links to Beijing.
Political jockeying ahead of a major Party conclave next
month has pitted Party chief Hu Jintao against peers loyal to
his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who relinquished his last major
post in 2004 but remains influential on the sidelines.
There are historical parallels. Jiang took several years to
emerge from the shadow of Deng, who ceded his last official
post in 1989 but remained paramount leader until his death in
In the 1980s and part of the 1990s, the Party was beholden
to a coterie of geriatric veterans known as the "Eight
Immortals" who were behind all major decisions, and frequently
In 1987, retired hardliners decided to remove Party chief
Hu Yaobang from office for the sin of "bourgeois liberalism."
Two years later, the elders agreed to use force to clear
pro-democracy protesters from Tiananmen Square, and soon
thereafter to strip Zhao Ziyang of the post of Party chief for
having opposed the decision.
As that generation of Communists who fought in the
revolution died off, the clout of retired leaders has faded but
not ended. A few nonagenarians, like former vice premier Wan
Li, 90, and Hu's mentor, Song Ping, also 90, remain
Party documents show that elders are still to be consulted
on important personnel changes.
In the horse-trading ahead of the 17th Party congress next
month, members of the oldest generation such as Song, who is
credited with bringing Hu to Deng's attention more than 15
years ago, can be expected to voice their opinions. And Jiang,
as retired leader emeritus, will certainly have his say -- but
not the last word.
"They matter," said Victor Shih, of Northwestern University
in the United States. "But the days when one single elder can
determine the outcome of an appointment is long over."
Beijing, too, has taken concrete steps to institutionalize
personnel changes, including setting retirement age limits
throughout the Party.
Few details are made public of the lives of senior
retirees, including Jiang and others in his cohort such as
former premiers Zhu Rongji and Li Peng.
The Party does what it can to keep former leaders placated,
observers say. The most senior are lavished with homes,
offices, secretaries, bodyguards and cars with drivers.
They are also privy to key internal documents, analysts
say. From time to time -- usually when it serves the Party's
interests -- some are invited to attend high-profile ceremonial
functions such as key anniversaries or funerals.
In part, analysts say, that treatment is about giving them
"face," while also being a protective mechanism.
"Give the old boys respect, give them all the appurtenances
of good life in China and they won't bother you. You've got to
keep these people in play and on your side," said Roderick
MacFarquhar, an elite politics expert at Harvard University.
"The last thing the people in power want to do is to arouse
resentment among very senior people who once held the same
positions that they did, so that they feel dissed and then
begin to grumble, and then the grumbles reach a public place."
That phenomenon is not unusual. In February 2006, a group
of retired Party officials blasted current leaders for their
handling of the media and for closing the investigative
newspaper Bingdian, or Freezing Point.
This February, a Party veteran made a rare call for
democratic socialism in a state-run journal, stirring a wave of
condemnation from within the Party.
And in July, 17 retired officials, academics and military
officers accused the Party of bowing to capitalism and urged Hu
"to rectify a wrong rule allowing capitalists who refuse to
abandon exploitation to join the Party."
The Party does try to keep its retirees in check.
Memoirs are effectively banned, and any former leaders who
want to write their story must gain approval at the highest
level. Domestic and international travel requires approval from
the Party secretariat.
One particularly vocal elder has been Li Rui, 90, a former
secretary of Mao Zedong.
"When someone like him speaks it has reverberations," said
MacFarquhar. "These are not people who can be accused of being
young students who have no knowledge of the real world. This is
a man who has fought with the Communist Party alongside his
comrades for over 60 years."
(Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim)