Official Chinese media announced proposed changes to the Constitution, to be adopted at the upcoming National People’s Congress session, including the addition of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” and the establishment of a state level National Supervision Commission to oversee Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Most notably, the proposed amendments eradicate a clause establishing presidential term limits. From a translation of the proposal by Changhao Wei on NPC Observer blog, reposted by China Law Translate:
14. Paragraph 3 of article 79 of the Constitution that reads “The term of office of the President and Vice President of the People’s Republic of China is the same as that of the National People’s Congress, and they shall serve no more than two consecutive terms. ” is amended to read: “The term of office of the President and Vice President of the People’s Republic of China is the same as that of the National People’s Congress.” [Source]
Bloomberg reports on the proposal, which immediately raised concerns about the implications of Xi remaining in his position after the end of his second term in 2023. Xi concurrently holds the positions of President of the People’s Republic of China, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (among others), only the first of which is currently restricted by term limits:
The party’s Central Committee announced Sunday it was seeking to end a constitutional provision that bars the head of state from serving more than two consecutive terms. That would remove the only formal barrier to Xi, who is also party leader and commander-in-chief of the military, staying in power indefinitely.
The move was first flagged at a party meeting last October, although Sunday’s formal announcement shows the extent of Xi’s grip on power heading into the start of his second term. It dispenses with the orderly succession system China adopted in the aftermath of Mao Zedong’s chaotic rule as it sought legitimacy from the West, and draws comparisons with Vladimir Putin’s successful effort to consolidate control over Russia’s post-Soviet democracy.
“China has traditionally had some degree of healthy debate within the leadership about the direction China should go,” said David Cohen, a Beijing-based managing editor at consulting firm China Policy. “This move signals that those whose opinion Xi has to care about are either happy about the direction Xi is taking things, or have been effectively sidelined.” [Source]
The decision does not come as a total surprise to close watchers of Chinese politics, especially after Xi did not introduce a planned successor during the 19th Party Congress in the fall. But the timing was unexpected for many. In recent years, Xi has worked to consolidate his power through his far-reaching anti-corruption campaign and a sustained crackdown on free expression and civil society groups. At The New York Times, Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher look at the impact of the move on Chinese politics, and the timing of the announcement:
By moving so early in his tenure, Mr. Xi, 64, is in effect proclaiming that he intends to stay in office well past 2023, overturning rules of succession in Chinese politics that evolved as the party sought stability following the power struggles to replace first Mao, and then Deng Xiaoping.
“Xi Jinping will certainly continue,” said Zhang Ming, a retired historian at Renmin University in Beijing. “In China, he can do what he wants to do, and this is just sending a clearer signal of that.”
[…] “This is the next step in the continuing breakdown of political norms that had held sway in China’s reform era,” said Carl Minzner, a professor of law at Fordham University in New York and author of a new book on Mr. Xi’s increasing authoritarianism.
“What are the risks of these shifts?” Professor Minzner said. “In the short term, all the traditional dangers that arise from the excessive centralization of power in the hands of one person. But in the long term, the real question is how far the breakdown in political norms could go.” [Source]
“We are now dealing with a situation where the second-largest economy in the world, and arguably, the other super power, is careening pretty rapidly to de-institutionalization of the highest offices in the land,” Blanchette said. “This move makes the black box of Chinese politics even more opaque.”
Such an amendment seemed almost inconceivable when the party initially elevated a reserved, adequate bureaucrat to the presidency because leaders thought Xi was someone who could be controlled. Since then, the 64-year-old Xi has rooted out dissent — from human rights lawyers to political rivals — and consolidated power to a degree unseen since Mao.
The news wasn’t a complete surprise. Xi declined to name an heir at a twice-a-decade party congress in October, breaking with precedent and leading analysts to speculate that he might seek to extend his tenure.
“This is a very dangerous proposition,” said Willy Lam, an expert on elite politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “We now have the theoretical and constitutional underpinning for an emperor for life.” [Source]
Many have compared Xi’s move to similar efforts by Vladimir Putin to stay in power indefinitely in Russia. But Richard McGregor writes for the Lowy Institute that a move to extend his power may be a sign of Xi’s weakness rather than his strength:
With Sunday’s announcement, these nascent institutional norms have gone out the window. In their place, we are returning to the system that prevailed into the early 1990s, of informal, opaque bargaining, usually involving elders, to determine top positions.
In Xi’s case, however, Chinese politics may be going back even further, to the Mao era of strongman rule. Xi, of course, is not Mao, and Mao’s China is not today’s China, but that in many respects makes his removal of any restraints on staying in office all the more remarkable. However you read it, his centralisation of power does hark back to darker times in China.
[…] But does it signal that Xi is all-powerful? That can be argued both ways.
Xi’s ability to push this decision through in the short-term is undoubtedly a display of his grip on all levers of power. But the very fact that he feels the need to do so could easily be a sign of something else – that he is possessed by an urgency to gather even more power than he already has to keep his enemies at bay. [Source]
As legal scholar Jerome Cohen points out on his blog, the potential lifetime appointment of Xi is a step backward from recent efforts to institutionalize the leadership transition and prevent the rise of one all-powerful leader following decades of chaos and instability in China.
The Chinese Communist Party’s proposed abolition of China’s presidential term limit means that it has forgotten one of the main lessons of Mao’s long despotism. The two-term limit was inserted into the People’s Republic of China Constitution after the Cultural Revolution ended and reflected a widespread desire to prevent the return of one-man dictatorship. Its abolition signals the likelihood of another long period of severe repression. This should prompt us to think of Chiang Kaishek as well as Mao and Yuan Shikai and, in a comparative Asian vein, of Marcos and Park among others. Of course, some recognize that Putin’s example may also have significantly influenced Xi Jinping.
Xi’s move will have a profound effect on world order. It will enable him to move more boldly and increases the risk of his acting arbitrarily and perhaps mistakenly in international relations. It will surely hinder China’s efforts to be respected for “soft power” as well as military and economic prowess. [Source]
This is the nail in the coffin of Deng’s project of institutionalizing collective leadership.
— Susan Shirk (@SusanShirk1) February 25, 2018
The post-Mao institutionalization didn’t proceed far or deeply enough to prevent an ambitious leader from restoring personalistic rule.
— Susan Shirk (@SusanShirk1) February 25, 2018
Certain institutional norms and precedents were followed but minimal institutionalization failed to stop Xi from grasping power.
— Susan Shirk (@SusanShirk1) February 25, 2018
It doesn’t have to be Xi as “leader for life” to be a huge deal. Formally removing a rule that signaled orderly succession means a more personalized, less institutionalized regime. Even an extra five years would bust a fragile pattern some had hoped would enable reforms.
— Graham Webster (@gwbstr) February 26, 2018
At The New York Times, Jane Perlez and Javier C. Hernández look at the response to the announcement within China, from both supporters of Xi’s and critics:
At home, Mr. Xi will likely have considerable support for a third term, the result of a yearslong campaign to sideline political rivals and limit dissent. And nationalists cheered the decision, describing Mr. Xi as a singular force who could restore the glory of the nation.
But as the news spread, readings of Hannah Arendt who wrote about the evils of totalitarian rule, and passages from George Washington, who retired after two terms as president, were discussed on social media in Chinese legal circles.
Douglas H. Paal, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the sudden move, before Mr. Xi even starts his second term next month, suggested that things were not “normal” within the Communist Party.
“This looks like forced marching, not normal order, so something is going on,” Mr. Paal said. “Xi is winning, but it will take sleuthing to find out what. These are not ordinary times.” [Source]
In China, Weibo users and others expressed concerns about a potentially longer Xi presidency. From Manya Koetse at What’s on Weibo:
The news caused consternation on Weibo and in WeChat circles, where it was received with much apprehension; some called the idea of Xi’s potential indefinite rule “scary.” “Our emperor has received the Mandate of Heaven, so we have to kneel and accept,” a person on Weibo said. Others mentioned the North Korean regime and Napolean in discussions on the constitutional change. A news item by CCTV on the issue soon received nearly 10.000 shares on Sina Weibo on Sunday, but its comment section was turned off. Many online reactions were censored on Sunday evening, and people also addressed the censorship. On some threads that discussed the topic in a negative light, netizens warned others that they were “walking a tightrope.” [Source]
Ben Blanchard at Reuters reports that the government has drowned out voices of dissent on the issue through censorship and propaganda:
The social media reaction late on Sunday quickly saw China swing into a concerted propaganda push by Monday, blocking some articles and publishing pieces praising the party.
“Argh, we’re going to become North Korea,” wrote one Weibo user, where the Kim dynasty has ruled since the late 1940s. Kim Il Sung founded North Korea in 1948 and his family has ruled it ever since.
”We’re following the example of our neighbor,’ wrote another user.
The comments were removed late on Sunday after Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, began blocking the search term “two term limit”. [Source]
CDT Chinese is compiling lists of related terms blocked in Sina Weibo search results, which include “ascended the throne” and “proclaim oneself emperor.” Kelsey Munro at SBS reports on additional censorship of the news:
Free Weibo, a website that allows users to search for blocked Weibo terms, said the top 10 censored topics on Monday included (in Chinese): Xi Jinping, “to ascend the throne”, Winnie, Yuan Shikai, “amend the constitution,” and “Chairman of the Nation,” China cyberspace researcher Fergus Ryan from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute told SBS News. [Source]
On WeChat, I shared a Reuters story about China’s proposal to scrap the two-term presidency limit with a family member. The text was apparently deleted by censors. She said ” I have not received the text.” pic.twitter.com/8OG0wQvMyB
— Owen Guo (@BJ_Southerner) February 25, 2018
“One person with close ties to China’s leadership says that people worried about Mr Xi’s authoritarian tendencies are “not just scared, they are desperate”.
The person adds that scrapping the two-term limit “has put us back 30 years” https://t.co/PEEWw217z1
— Bill Bishop (@niubi) February 25, 2018