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Senior leaders sometimes retain great influence over decisions and appointments long after they officially step down from power.
The most notorious example was Deng Xiaoping, who remained paramount leader even when his only remaining official post was chairman of the China Bridge Association.
More tellingly, it was Deng and other “retired” leaders – and not the Politburo Standing Committee – who are thought to have made the fateful decisions to declare martial law and then send in the army to clear Tiananmen Square during the 1989 protests.
Deng’s death in 1997, and the death or old age of other leaders from his generation, reduced the sway of party elders over the leadership of Jiang Zemin.
But the issue could become important again after Jiang’s generation steps down.
This is partly because of the patron-protégé nature of Chinese politics. Jiang and fellow Standing Committee member Li Peng have taken care to manoeuvre their own supporters into the Politburo and government bureaucracy.
This should ensure the two men and their different factions at least retain some influence over the new generation, even if that influence wanes as the new leaders gain more experience.
It is not simply about power for power’s sake. In China, retiring leaders know that the verdict on their achievements can easily be reversed. They also have to look out for their children, whose wealth and success becomes vulnerable to attack if their own influence fades.
As compensation, elders get a privileged and pampered retirement. They are guaranteed elite bodyguards, special housing, secretaries and drivers, as well as access to restricted documents and information.
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