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.
The issue is still important today. Chinese President Hu Jintao is believed to be trying to reduce the influence of former President Jiang Zemin, even though he no longer has an official post. Part of the reason the elders wield such influence is because of the patron-protege nature of Chinese politics.
Mr Jiang and other members of his generation took care to manoeuvre their own supporters into the politburo and government bureaucracy.
This should ensure they 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.