CCP Constitution Amendment May Signal Xi’s Power

As state media and Party officials kick their adoration of President Xi Jinping into overdrive ahead of the —an event long expected to see the further consolidation of ’s heavily fortified cache of power—Xinhua News Agency reported this week that the CCP’s Party Constitution will be amended at the meeting, which will begin on October 18. According to Xinhua, the change will “represent the latest sinicization of Marxism, the new governance concepts, thoughts and strategies of the CPC Central Committee since the 18th CPC National Congress, as well as the fresh experiences in adhering to and strengthening Party leadership, and in strict Party governance.” A draft of the has been approved, and will be discussed at the final plenary session of the 18th Party Congress on October 11. Following Xinhua’s announcement of the draft , analysts are wondering if the constitution will soon carry simply Xi’s contributions to Party political theory, or will actually enshrine his name in the Party’s organizing document alongside those of his predecessors Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. At the South China Morning Post, Jun Mai and Choi Chi-yuk provide historical context on the way that previous Party leaders have seen their legacies preserved in the Party :

“Once Xi’s name is incorporated in the constitution, his status in the party will be comparable to that of Mao [Zedong] and Deng [Xiaoping],” he said.

“If it is not, Xi will be regarded in much the same way as his predecessors Jiang [Zemin] and Hu [Jintao].”

The political philosophy of Xi’s immediate predecessor Hu Jintao, which was titled “Scientific Outlook on Development” became official a month before the 17th party congress, which convened in October 2007, at the end of his first term of office.

Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” was added to the party constitution at the 16th party congress in 2002, when he retired as the party’s general secretary. [Source]

No one “banner term,” or concise political slogan to characterize his policy legacy, has emerged as the obvious marker of Xi’s tenure to date, and the 19th Party Congress will likely be the event to see that happen. Last month on Louisa Lim’s Little Red Podcast, China Media Project’s Qian Gang noted that the term to emerge will be a major indicator of Xi’s true power over the Party, a topic that has been debated constantly over the past five years. In the podcast, Qian explained the hierarchy of “-ism,” “Thought,” and “Theory” in official rhetoric: “If after the meeting ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ emerges, then we know he’s reached the pinnacle of power. The others are weaker than this. Theory, Concept, and Strategy are all weaker. […] If it’s an -ism then he’s more powerful than Chairman Mao, and that’s impossible. A Thought would be the next most powerful level.”

Since Xi took over top Party and state governance roles, official presses have been publicizing his political philosophy. His vaguely defined “Chinese Dream” (中国梦) was the first slogan to emerge just after the 18th Party Congress, and in 2015 his “Strategy of Four Comprehensives” (四个全面战略布局) was unveiled. At Nikkei Asian Review, Oki Nagai notes that if Xi’s family name is in the final wording of the amendment, “that would be an affirmation of his status as among China’s most powerful rulers.” Currently, “Mao Zedong Thought” and “Deng Xiaoping Theory” are officially delineated in the Party charter, while Jiang Zemin’s “Theory of Three Represents” and Hu Jintao’s “Scientific Development Concept” are divorced from the names of the leaders to whom they are associated.

The amendment up for debate at the October 11 plenary session will be to the Constitution of the Communist Party of China, the Party’s guiding charter—not to be confused with the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, China’s supreme legal document. Earlier this month at Foreign Policy, Thomas Kellogg noted that Article 79 of the PRC Constitution, which limits a Chinese president to two five-year terms, may also be in Xi’s sights for amendment—and if so, will come with substantial risk. Speculation that Xi is planning to defy the conventional 10-year term limits for the presidency and top CCP leadership post has been mounting as he has been gathering power over the past few years, stoked by the fact that Xi’s likely successor has not yet emerged five years into his rule.

[The presidential term limit] is a rule clearly codified in national law and thus can’t be so easily avoided. If Xi wishes to change it, he will have to address it — and the associated risks — head on.

To be sure, China’s constitution promises lots of things that have never been delivered. Legally speaking, the constitution carries little weight — its core precepts are regularly violated, in part because there is no enforcement mechanism in place to address violations. And yet the constitution does matter as a political document; the CCP itself touts it regularly to boost its own governing legitimacy. Others have gotten in on the game as well: Party members, academics, and members of the public all regularly wrap themselves in the constitution in order to advance their own pet political causes.

[…] For Xi, the Article 79 term limit creates a real conundrum. The state presidency, though secondary to the party leadership post, holds significant political weight: It is the highest executive office in China and carries with it a number of official powers and duties. Though Xi’s political power flows first and foremost from his CCP leadership post, he is very much aware of the symbolic value of the state presidency and the many important domestic and international political opportunities it affords him.

Should he choose to honor the clear constitutional term limit, no doubt Xi could find a way to include himself in future high-flying global confabs, just as he could insert himself into key national meetings usually chaired by the Chinese president. But doing so would be made more difficult and create a potential rival in the form of the new president.

True, Xi could seek to have Article 79 amended in order to eliminate the potential conflict. There are plenty of international precedents for him to draw upon. […] But tweaking Article 79 would paint Xi in a less-than-flattering light: He would look like yet another authoritarian ruler much more interested in preserving his own rule than in, as he repeatedly promises, developing the legal framework and institutions needed to launch China into the next phase of its political development. […] [Source]