“To build the fate of a country on the renown of one or two people is very unhealthy and very dangerous.” So said Deng Xiaoping in 1989, although his warning went unremarked in the Chinese press this week after news that presidential term limits will be scrapped in the country’s constitution.
Xi Jinping is set for a longer stay in office after Xinhua – China’s official news agency – announced proposals to remove the line in the constitution that the president and vice-president “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms”.
The changes are expected to be rubber-stamped at the National People’s Congress next week.
Last summer WiC flagged the possibility that Xi would stay beyond his anticipated retirement date, following frantic politicking in the run-up to Politburo elections (see WiC376).
He has already cast a huge shadow over domestic politics through a long-running anti-corruption campaign and a series of signature policies that have drawn heavily on his personal authority. Then there were changes last October that elevated his standing to that of a “core leader” (taking him to a similar level to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping) and which enshrined ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ in the Party’s constitution. And in another break with previous practice, Xi declined to identify a successor, indicating that he had little desire to step down when his second five-year term comes to an end.
If he stays around for longer, Xi will be shaking up a political system that has been shaped for decades by the spirit of collective leadership and the predictable transfer of power. But his supporters counter that Xi is tasked with delivering a programme of deep-seated and difficult reform that demands the certainty of a longer period of leadership. Their watchword is stability – anchored around his dominant position in a trio of roles as general secretary of the Party, state president and commander-in-chief of the military.
“Removing the two-term limit of the Chinese president can help maintain the trinity system and improve the institution of leadership of the [Party] and the nation,” an editorial in the Global Times argues.
As we noted back in October, Xi seemed to be positioning himself for a longer period at the helm in a heavyweight speech to the Party Congress last autumn, which mentioned his “great rejuvenation” 27 times (see WiC385). The premise was that he was leading China into a “new era”. Mao had made it independent of foreign powers and Deng had made it more prosperous. Xi would make China powerful again.
Two longer-term “centennial goals” got plenty of airtime too. The first target is that China should emerge as a moderately prosperous society in time for the Chinese Communist Party’s centenary in 2021. For the second, China should stand tall as a “strong, democratic, civilised, harmonious and modern socialist country” by 2049, the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.
Holding on until then looks beyond Xi, who would be close to a hundred years old. But this month’s move could be interpreted as a sign of his political vitality because it has come so early in his second term, when he could have waited longer before pushing it through.
Naturally, there’s been no dissent in the local press although there was a little disquiet in social media, with Reuters reporting ribaldry on Sina Weibo about whether China was heading in the same direction as North Korea.
Another theme saw Xi portrayed as an emperor and there were memes that saw a reappearance of Winnie the Pooh – code for Xi himself – embracing a huge pot of honey with the message: “Find the thing you love and never let go”.
The censors soon stepped in and searches for material referencing the “two-term limit” have been blocked. Indeed, the Financial Times even reported that the term “I disagree” was blocked on social media, as was “boarding a plane” (a homophone for ‘ascending the throne’ in Chinese). The title of George Orwell’s classic novel Animal Farm also earned the censor’s attention.
The changes to the constitution mean that talk of the president’s strongman style will persist, although the commentary in the Global Times also claimed that it wasn’t the case that Xi is getting a generational golden ticket. “The change doesn’t mean that the Chinese president will have a lifelong tenure,” it cited an unnamed authority as saying.
Meanwhile, media in Hong Kong is reporting that Xinhua’s English-language service is in trouble for the way that it broke the news and that a senior Party figure has ordered an investigation into what has been called a “serious political error”. Reportedly, the editor responsible has been fired and senior figures at the news agency have been asked to submit self criticisms.
Zhang Lifan, a historian in Beijing, told Apple Daily that Xinhua might have transgressed by focusing in ‘too newsy’ a way on the removal of the presidential term limits, but failing to mention some of the other changes to the constitution.
And while sympathy is not normally something we feel for Xinhua editors, in this case we suspect they probably thought they’d fulfilled their duty by putting front and centre their leader’s career news.
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