BEIJING — For years, China’s Communist Party has maintained a check on the power of its leaders by calling on them to retire if they have reached age 68 when a new term begins.
Now President Xi Jinping, already the strongest Chinese leader in decades, may be maneuvering to bend those rules to retain a formidable ally — and create a precedent he could use to extend his own time in power.
Xi, 63, who has shaken up many political norms, does not want to be shackled by an informal rule created by his predecessors, people close to senior officials have said.
Whether Xi can get away with changing the age ceiling for staying in the party’s top rank, the Politburo Standing Committee, has become a bellwether of how far he can consolidate his grip on a new party leadership that will be chosen in the fall.
Xi’s immediate goal appears to be opening the way to keep on Wang Qishan, who has led his signature anticorruption drive and become one of the most powerful and feared officials in China, those people and other observers said. Wang, who is 68, could be forced to step down this year if the informal age ceiling holds.
But keeping Wang in place would also create an example that Xi could follow to stay in power after his two terms as president end in 2023. Already, news that Xi may delay choosing his successor has fanned speculation that he wants to prolong his hold on power.
Wang’s fate has become one of the most intensely followed parts of the secretive maneuvering ahead of a Communist Party leadership shake-up late this year and is likely to be a topic of back-room speculation when the national legislature convenes here Sunday.
Wang’s staying on is a strong possibility, though not a certainty, said a retired Chinese official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss elite political deliberations. He said that Xi said the age rule was not absolute, which was understood by officials to mean that he wanted Wang to be considered for the next term.
The blunt and combative Wang is an old friend of Xi’s. Since 2012, Wang has led the Communist Party’s discipline commission, overseeing the anticorruption campaign that has been a crowning feat of Xi’s tenure. Wang also expanded the commission’s role in policing loyalty to the party leader, making him a top political enforcer for Xi.
Along with his allegiance to Xi, Wang’s diverse achievements — including as deputy prime minister, mayor of Beijing, and as one of the government’s top financial firefighters — have fueled talk that Xi may want to install him as prime minister, shunting aside Li Keqiang, who was not Xi’s pick for the job.
A party congress this fall will almost certainly reappoint Xi as party general secretary for five more years and appoint a new team to serve under him. Five of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee must retire then under the current age limits, including Wang.
But the rule, known as “seven up, eight down,” is not codified in any public documents. It says members of the Politburo Standing Committee who are 68 or older when the party congress meets every five years will retire, while officials 67 or younger remain in contention for the next term.
The retirement age has been changed for political ends before. In 1997, President Jiang Zemin imposed a ceiling of 70 to dispense with one rival, and five years later reduced it to 68 to push out another. (He made an exception for himself, staying on as party leader until he was 76.)
“The rules for succession are all unwritten and largely up for negotiation,” said Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies at King’s College, London. “All Xi has to do is play the ‘exceptional times need exceptional remedies’ card.”
Neither Xi nor Wang has said anything publicly about his plans. That would be nearly unthinkable hubris in the shadow play of Chinese politics, where ambition and power plays come cloaked in high-minded rhetoric and rules.