Emperor Xi

The news that emerged out of Beijing on Feb. 25, the proposed constitutional amendment that will be ratified as a matter of course by the Chinese legislature meeting this week and next, is startling but not entirely unexpected.

The proposal to lift the two-term limit on the presidency of China is part of a pattern, the continuing consolidation of power by Xi Jinping, the most dominant Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. Still, it comes as a surprise to those who see Xi as a suave politician, sophisticated in his ways.

The real source of power in China is the Communist Party; that power, in turn, is backed by the People’s Liberation Army (which is under party, not state, control).

Xi has a firm hold on both. He is general secretary of the party, and chair of the Central Military Commission. (The paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, the wily survivor who led the so-called opening of China, never held the top party position but served for years as chair of the commission overseeing the military.)

Both positions are not restricted by term limits, and
the official justification offered by the Chinese government for the proposed constitutional amendment referred to this fact.

In imitating the party’s rules regarding these two positions, the change in the state constitution “benefits protecting the authority of the party center and collective leadership with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, and benefits the strengthening and perfecting of the national leadership system,” Reuters quoted Zhang Yesui, a vice minister and spokesperson of the legislature, as saying.

What the amendment means, in fine, is that Xi can stay as president for longer than the two five-year terms that the collective leadership under Deng fashioned out of the chaos of Mao’s despotic rule.

The first Chinese president to follow these term limits was Jiang Zemin; the second was his successor and Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. Xi proposes to end this tradition even before it has taken firm root.

Why would he do so? Unlike Jiang, Hu, and even Deng, to whom the Communist Party of China owes its formula for survival, Xi has elevated his policies into the party constitution, enshrined as “Xi Jinping Thought for a New Era,” and succeeded in having himself named as “core leader”—a new honorific, symbolic of Xi’s central position in the Chinese universe.

Jiang himself engineered a few more years as chair of the Central Military Commission even after he stepped down from the presidency; Xi could have availed himself of the same option at the end of his second term in 2023.

The answer seems to lie in that international reputation of Xi we had mentioned, as a sophisticated statesman of the international order.

While it would have been possible for Xi to remain as party general secretary or as military commander in chief even after his presidency, he would not have been able to represent China and take the lead in global affairs.

As The Economist noted: “The answer must be that it is because of the kind of leader he wants to be: with his power on full display, not hidden behind the scenes. A reason for wanting this is that he is trying to project Chinese influence round the world. Because of diplomatic protocol it is easier to meet foreign leaders as president than as general secretary.”

The end of term limits would effectively mean the end of Deng’s ideal of collective leadership. And if Chinese history itself is any guide, it would exchange short-term stability (Xi’s continuing crackdown on corruption has led to the arrest and incarceration of high party and government officials) for long-term leadership succession chaos. As Deng himself argued, post-Mao, the “overconcentration of power” leads to “arbitrary rule.”

But Xi is not seeking changes in the country’s constitution to benefit only himself. He is seeking to entrench the Communist Party’s monopoly on power even further.

As The Economist warned, another constitutional amendment that has been proposed and that will be ratified as a matter of course seeks to reword the first of the Chinese constitution’s general principles, to this: “The socialist system is the fundamental system of the People’s Republic of China. The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is the most essential feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

The first sentence is not new. The second is, and like Xi, promises to be around a long time.