A popular quip in China caricatures how the country’s leadership is really decided: the 80-year-olds summon the 70-year-olds to discuss which 60-year-olds should retire. The leadership might change, but the elders will probably continue to wield power in the country’s cabinet.
China watchers sometimes mistakenly ascribe this gerontocracy to the country’s one-party dictatorship, but it is in fact a product of China’s paternalist culture and ideology, which asserts that power emerges from the process of establishing an orderly succession. China has attached great importance to seniority for thousands of years, during which time elders have always enjoyed more power and privilege than the young.
Confucian doctrine dictates that everyone should respect their elders. Confucius, China’s most famous philosopher, whose teachings deeply influence Chinese thought, told his followers: “When you meet someone older, you must respect and submit to that person’s wisdom and power because he must have come across problems you encounter.”
The popular mentor also famously instructed government officials to be “parents to the people” — and those words still inform attitudes to patriarchy in China today, where being submissive is highly praised and subversion can get you killed.
Former leader Mao Zedong abdicated power only on his deathbed, when he was 83. Deng Xiaoping, although he officially retired from the political scene in 1992, was widely regarded as the top leader until his death, aged 93, in 1997. Jiang Zemin, now 86, no longer holds a seat in the political hierarchy, but still has influence behind the scenes.
China’s President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiaobao, who will step down from their positions next year, are both 70. Hu’s expected successor, Xi Jinping, is 59, but still considered young by many.
It is not only the cabinet that is run by elders. All government entities and state-run firms follow the same system. For example, China’s top central banker, Zhou Xiaochuan, 64, is several years older than all the vice-governors.
These attitudes to hierarchy are reflected in the Chinese language, which distinguishes an elder brother from a younger brother, an elder sister from younger sister, an uncle who is older from one who is younger, and so on. These distinctions are fundamental to China’s kinship system.
The good news is that in private businesses, where competence is not correlated to age, a generation of accomplished young entrepreneurs is emerging. At 36, Li Shufu, founder of Geely Group, turned his auto part workshop into a billion-renminbi industry leader. Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, was recognised as an influential businessman in Asia at age 37.
China may be ruled by elders, but its incredible growth engine is powered by the work of many young entrepreneurs like Li and Ma. That said, without old man Deng’s wisdom to engineer economic reform, they might not have had the opportunity to start their businesses.