China's Retired Leaders Don't Fade Away

The Economist notes the potentially disruptive accumulation of former Chinese leaders pulling strings from behind the scenes—and even returning to the stage:

When former leaders have kept a hand in things, they have usually done so from behind the scenes. Most maintain offices and large staffs. They get copies of official documents and are quietly consulted on important matters—not least on the promotion of future leaders.

But this month saw a rare public return to the fray. Mr Zhu, who is 82 and in much more robust health than Mr Jiang, retired as prime minister in 2003. In office, Mr Zhu had a reputation as a blunt, honest reformer. He has now released a multi-volume collection of speeches and letters from his years in power. China’s state-controlled press has given his work lots of attention, even highlighting some of the most pointed remarks made by a man famous for his short temper and sharp tongue. Among these were his contention that a government full of yes-men ill serves the needs of the people. Chinese leaders, he also railed, should devote less time to lavish banquets and pointless meetings, and more time to solving problems ….

Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, says he is surprised that Mr Zhu is now being so forthright, but predicts that public interventions by former leaders—“old-man politics”—could well increase. Not only is the number of ex-leaders growing. A rise in factional politics and greater differences of opinion among a new (and weaker) generation of leaders might also undermine unity at the centre. China’s old men will no doubt want to say something about it all.

At the Tsinghua University centenary celebrations referred to in the article, Zhu told students that he watched CCTV’s prime-time news show every evening “to see what their bullshit is”, and recommended that they read ‘Will the Boat Sink the Water?‘, a banned book about downtrodden peasants and corrupt officials: see ‘Our Maverick Premier Takes an Alma Mater Bow‘ on CDT. Beyond just making provocative remarks, Zhu has also provided political protection for investigative journalist Wang Keqin.


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