A terse announcement published in Xinhua news agency on Sunday says “The Communist Party of China Central Committee (CC) proposed to remove the expression that the President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms” from the country’s Constitution.”
It is not clear when the meeting of the CC occurred, probably at the second plenum of the CC in January, but it is obvious that the target of the announcement is the 13th session of National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s equivalent of Parliament, which opens for its annual session on March 5.
Xi Jinping was given a second term as general secretary by the 19th Communist Party of China (CPC) Congress in October 2017, now the NPC will confirm him to a second term as President in March 2018. Once the new amendment is approved, it will give Xi Jinping, aged 64, the institutional authority to remain President beyond 2023, when he should have retired, having completed two terms. In other words, Xi could well be President for life.
Other amendments could see the Xi Jinping Thought being written into the state constitution as well as the establishment of a new anti-graft body called the National Supervisory Commission (NSC). This last named body will be one of the biggest institutional changes in recent times.
Currently, the Central Commission on Discipline Inspection (CCDI) monitors party members, while the NSC will supervise all public workers, including those in government, courts, as well as doctors, academics and teachers. Wang Qishan, the powerful head of the CCDI, who retired at the party congress last year, was elected as a delegate to the NPC in January, suggesting that may be appointed head of the new NSC.China has a complicated parallel system where the Communist Party and the Chinese State, both with their own constitutions, coexist. While the CPC runs the military through the Central Military Commission, other ministries and departments are run through the authority of the state constitution. It has its own institutions like the President, NPC, the State Council headed by a Premier, state councillors, ministries, etc. who are all largely party members. In other words, the state constitution and state law are made by “the people” through the NPC under the leadership of the CPC. Usually a minister not only heads the ministry, but is also the secretary of the ministry’s party committee. So, as minister, he reports to the state Premier, in this case Li Keqiang, and as party secretary, up the chain to the general secretary who is Xi Jinping.
Xi Jinping wears three hats – the general secretary of the CPC, president of China and the chairman of the Central Military Commission. Note that he was elected general secretary in November 2012, months before he became president at the annual NPC meeting in March 2013.
The signs of Xi continuing beyond his term in 2023 have been visible for some time now. In 2016, Xi was officially designated by the CC as “the core” of the leadership, a title he shares with Mao Tse Tung, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. More recently, two prominent newspapers conferred the title lingxu on him. This word means leader, but one of the highest calibre in contrast to simply being a leader or lingdao, and this designation he shares with Mao and Deng only.
Xi has also used the institution of Leading Groups to take direct charge of a range of areas. He is the chairman of the Leading Groups for comprehensively deepening reforms, on military and civilian development, internet security, financial affairs, foreign affairs, defence and military reforms and the national security commission. These Leading Groups comprise core officials and party members and call the real shots in the Chinese government system.
The party constitution is vague on the issue of term limits of its general secretary. In the past two years, there have been hints at the scrapping of age limits. In October 2016 , a senior party leader Deng Maosheng said that the concept of term limits were “pure folklore.” There have been several other instances of the age limits being revised for senior leaders.
However, the 19th Party Congress in October 2017 stuck to the established convention by retiring leaders who had crossed or were approaching the age of 68. Among these was CCDI chief Wang. Significantly, the new politburo standing committee did not see the promotion of any leader who looked likely to succeed Xi in 2023. This was a departure from the post-Deng norm where successors were more or less identifiable well in advance.More germane to the current issue, the party constitution was amended to introduce Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. By juxtaposing it with Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Theory of Three Represents and the Scientific Outlook on Development, it virtually made Xi’s pronouncements as the working guide of the party in this era.
This was a huge departure from the party norms set by Deng Xiaoping to stabilise the Chinese system after the ravages of the Mao era. This means that Xi, as long as he is alive, is the dominant figure in the party because his theory guides it in the new era. Now, with the authority of the Presidency as well, Xi is set to be the supreme ruler of China into the foreseeable future.
China today is the strongest it has been since the 18th Century and is set to become even more powerful in the coming decades. Xi has already set the benchmarks— a moderately prosperous country by 2020, fully modern socialist society by 2035, and attain the China Dream of being a “prosperous, powerful, democratic, harmonious and beautiful socialist modern country” by 2050.
But by extending his term into the future Xi is putting personal power over the institutional process that has been working quite well in China for the past decades. By taking all the reins of power in his own hands, Xi assumes enormous personal responsibility for virtually everything happening in China, good or bad. Taking more and more titles and power may actually be a sign that he is not being able push through his policies in the manner he wants.
Experience around the world, whether in democracies or authoritarian systems, is that leaders usually begin to pall after about a decade and so, this development could actually signal the potential for instability in China in the coming period.