Written by Richard McGregor.
Has Xi Jinping just made himself president for life?
The announcement on Sunday that China will amend its state constitution to remove the two-term limit for the presidency has seemingly cleared the way for just that.
Under the old constitutional provisions, Xi would have been required to step aside as president in early 2023, when his second five-year term would come to an end. Xi would not necessarily have had to cede power, however. There are no terms limits for one of the other key positions he occupies, that of secretary of the communist party, the office in which true power resides in China.
In that respect, the position of president (head of state) is just being bought into line with that of the ruling party. As recently as the early 1990s, different figures held the office of president and party secretary.
The announcement is enormously significant nonetheless.
Xi’s current term as party secretary lasts until late 2022, and there are no formal impediments to him staying for longer – other than the evolving institutional norms which aligned the CCP job with that of president, and thus limited it to two terms. Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, for example, served two terms in both positions.
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.
The early propaganda takes coming out of China suggested that this change was needed for stability. In the words of a scholar quoted in the Global Times, the party-controlled populist tabloid, Beijing needs a strong stable leadership in the “crucial period” between 2020 and 2035, by which time China will be a modern, prosperous state.
Far from providing stability, however, Xi’s decision to remove formal impediments to him staying in power may do the opposite. One of the CCP’s great strengths in recent decades has been to build a system of orderly succession at the top, something that often eluded and defenestrated authoritarian regimes around the world. Jiang Zemin handed over power to Hu Jintao on a fixed timetable; Hu in turn did the same with Xi.
Late October, at the once-in-five-years party congress, Xi indicated the direction he was heading in by declining to appoint a clear successor who could be groomed to take over the position of party secretary in late 2022. The announcement of Sunday reinforces that decision.
The timing of the Sunday missive is telling as well. Coming at the beginning of a second term, it both cements for the moment Xi’s overwhelming authority over the party and the government, and also sends a warning to his legion of enemies at the top of the party who have been hit by the anti-corruption campaign: he is not going anywhere.
It also dovetails with the broader theme of Xi’s period in office – of the party erasing distinctions between it and the state. In this case, the terms for the state presidency have been bought into alignment with the party secretary’s job.
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.
One thing is certain. Many Chinese scholars and officials who have worked hard to advance political and legal reforms in China will be furious that Xi is throwing their efforts aside.
Richard McGregor is a journalist and formerly the Beijing and Washington DC bureau chief for the Financial Times. He is currently a Senior Fellow with the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia and the author of Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century. He tweets at @mcgregorrichard. This article was first published on The Interpreter, the online magazine of the Lowy Institute and has been republished with the permission of the editor. Image credit: CC by U.S. Department of State/Flickr.