Age Rules: The Arrival of the Post-60s Generation in Chinese Politics

In American professional and political life, ceilings can come in the form of glass or bamboo. Variations of these exist in China, but there’s one ceiling in Chinese politics that is absent in US politics: age.

In fact, the opposite is true in America—there is a constitutionally required age floor (35) to run for US president but no mandated retirement age. Although bereft of constitutional mandates, Chinese politics are nonetheless governed by a set of strong and weak norms, with age being among the strongest.

Codified or not, these norms or “rules” are crucial to ensuring stable political transitions in a one-party state. To avoid regular legitimacy crises, these norms act as stabilizers that weed out the old and usher in the new every five to ten years.

Not only has the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) largely adhered to the age ceiling for decades, age norms have held up even in the Xi Jinping era where term limits for top government posts, not Party positions, were eliminated. The age ceiling, then, is perhaps one of the greatest stabilizers in China’s national politics (see Box).

On the one hand, this core feature of Chinese elite politics can help avoid the so-called “gerontocracy” in American politics that many have blamed for its very calcification. That is, the typical personnel turnover rate during Chinese political transitions is much higher than during US congressional elections.

Based on nomination age ceilings alone, we estimate the upcoming 20th Central Committee (CC) in 2022 will see 63% membership turnover, with the post-60s generation—politicians born after 1960—accounting for at least 80% of total CC membership. This is in stark contrast with the 16% average turnover rate in each new US Congress since 2000.

On the other hand, the age limit makes Chinese politics less diverse because the age spread in the current 19th CC, for example, is just 17 years, or roughly a single generation. That’s a far cry from the US Congress, where the age spread spans the Silent Generation to millennials (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. China’s Central Committee Represents a Single Generation
Source: MacroPolo’s The Committee; US congressional records.

That wide age spread is much more representative of American society, but it also leads to generational tensions, which have lately manifested in different wings of the Democratic Party being at loggerheads. While it is exceedingly rare for such generational tensions in Chinese politics to spill out into the public, the relative dominance of a single generation during the decadal political cycle matters considerably.

The upcoming Chinese political transition of 2022, in fact, is just such a moment. The dominant post-60s generation won’t have captured the pinnacle of political power yet, as the post-50s generation will still occupy most of the 25 Politburo seats. But post-60s politicians will overwhelmingly represent 20th CC membership.

This is a rare dynamic in Chinese politics because the gulf between shared experiences and the ideological predilection of those born in the 1950s and 1960s may be one of the widest. The remaining analysis examines both the enduring viability of the age ceiling and how a new generation of Chinese leaders could influence the direction of elite politics.

The Age Ceiling Endures

In the leadup to the 2017 political transition, the air was rife with speculation that the CCP would make an exception to the “seven up, eight down” rule to keep Wang Qishan on the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC).

Yet not only did Wang formally vacate his PBSC position, our “Selection 2022” feature shows consistent compliance with the various retirement age rules. So far, of the 79 personnel changes in the CC since August 2021, not one has deviated from age norms, indicating the age ceiling remains as durable as ever.

Indeed, the age ceiling has held up even as term limits on the president and vice president posts were eliminated in 2018 at the National People’s Congress. Although the action was viewed as controversial, in reality, term limits as a rule has always been haphazardly applied.

For instance, Hu Jintao was the only top leader since Deng Xiaoping—who in 1982 instituted the term limits rule for top government positions—to step down from both his Party and government posts when his two terms were up.

In this sense, hyperventilating over term limits seems disproportionate to its actual significance—it was always a weaker check on power that had limited impact on CCP politics and political transitions. Given this political logic, the term limits amendment in 2018 simply aligned rules for the presidential post with that of the top two Party positions of General Secretary and Chairman of the People’s Liberation Army, neither of which is subject to formal term limits.

The People’s Daily followed up with an editorial stressing that the abolition of presidential term limits was not a threat to the age ceiling that served as the longstanding mechanism for bringing new blood into Party leadership.

In short, this was a de facto formalization of what had always been a political reality: the age ceiling, not term limits, matters more in Chinese elite politics. In a system where age norms play a central role in determining political leadership, it is important to consider how particular age cohorts (i.e. generations) can influence the direction of politics.

Generation Matters

Generations are defined by shared experiences. For example, America’s Silent Generation was born into the Great Depression, fought as young adults in World War II, and returned home to realize the “American Dream.” Millennials, on the other hand, came of age during a decade bookended by 9/11 and the global financial crisis.

That contrast in generational experiences was five or six decades apart. Yet in China, dramatic changes were compressed into a single decade.

For an average Chinese born in 1960, for example, he or she would have come of age at the start of the reform and opening period, spending their entire career under market reforms, general stability, and relative prosperity. In contrast, an average Chinese born in 1950 would have experienced starvation in the Great Famine when they turned ten, probably did back-breaking work as “sent-down youth” in their teens, was denied the opportunity to go to college, and capped it off with the tumultuous Cultural Revolution in their 20s.

If common experience is the main criterion for defining generational differences, it is evident that the post-50s and post-60s divide is particularly stark. Simply speaking, the post-50s generation got the worst of Mao Zedong and the post-60s got the best of Deng Xiaoping.

Shared experiences can also shape the views and ideological predisposition of a generational cohort. For instance, nearly half of American millennials hold favorable views toward “socialism,” while those who view capitalism favorably fell from 66% to 51% between 2010 and 2019, according to a Gallup poll.

An ideological shift can also be detected in China’s post-50s and post-60s generations. Based on data from Peking University’s zuobiao political ideology survey, our analysis suggests the post-60s generation leans more pro-market and is more politically liberal than its post-50s brethren (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Chinese Born After 1960 Are More Pro-Market and Liberal in OrientationNote: Higher y-axis values indicate a more pro-market/politically liberal ideological orientation.
Source: “China’s Ideological Spectrum” (Pan and Xu 2015); MacroPolo.

Of course, one should resist over-extrapolating this trend to imply that as profound an ideological shift will take place in the 20th CC given the rising prominence of the post-60s generation of politicians. There is no doubt the CCP is a formidable institution that has a low tolerance for ideological heterodoxy.

Still, the preponderance of individuals shaped by a prolonged period of openness and market development will likely have some influence on the direction of policies and views on particular issues. A quick look at some of the key post-60s politicians’ career track records may hint at how they could shape policy beyond 2022.

Post-60s Political Leadership Snapshot

Three of the current Politburo’s youngest members—Li Qiang (1959), Chen Min’er (1961), and Hu Chunhua (1963)—built their careers as more pro-market reformers. All three should be key figures in the 20th Politburo.

Li spent his career in Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Shanghai, three coastal regions with vibrant private sectors. Just after becoming Party Secretary of Shanghai, Li apparently rolled out 100 measures to further liberalize the market. These measures included actions to ease market access for foreign capital in the financial sector, eliminate foreign investment restrictions, and establish a leading intellectual property (IP) platform to ensure IP protection for foreign firms.

Chen developed a reputation as an innovator in Guizhou during his four-year tenure. He repeatedly urged provincial officials to learn from coastal provinces in cultivating a vibrant private sector and encouraging market competition. He also sought to make Guizhou into a western outpost for technology, creating a big data pilot zone that attracted nearly 9,000 companies, including Apple and Microsoft. Under his watch, Guizhou, once among China’s poorest provinces, achieved consecutive double-digit growth on the back of a private sector that saw its share of the provincial economy rise from 43% in 2013 to 53% in 2017.

Hu Chunhua has played a leading role in international trade as vice premier. Not only has he extended an olive branch to multinationals operating in China, he has attracted more than $270 billion in imports as managing director of the China International Import Expo. As Party Secretary of Guangdong, China’s largest provincial economy, Hu also appeared to have been an ally of the private sector. He was aggressive in relaxing administrative approvals to make Guangdong’s business climate more attractive to venture capital.

Can Post-60s Generation Swing the Pendulum?

Although the post-60 politicians above demonstrated their pro-market proclivities, predicting whether provincial experience will carry through to national leadership is a fraught exercise. Priorities tend to change as national leaders focus more on security and stability and reforms become a negotiated process that often result in lowest common denominator outcomes.

Moreover, generational cohorts aren’t monolithic, as ideological diversity permeates every generation. Still, the early returns from survey data and career profiles suggest the post-60s generation—both on the whole and in terms of its most prominent political leaders—has a notably pro-market bent.

Even in the absence of immediate, drastic policy shifts, this generational changing of the guard could lead to more bottom-up pressure on the post-50s leaders at the top. If nothing else, the post-60s generation could curtail some of the excessive statist tendencies and give the metaphorical pendulum a chance to swing back in the market direction.

Damien Ma is the Managing Director of MacroPolo. You can find his work on energy, politics, and other topics here.

Joshua Henderson is a student fellow at MacroPolo.

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