|Chairman Xi will rule China for life.|
In one swift vote, the rubber-stamp legislature opened up the possibility of Xi being president for life, returning China to the one-man-rule system that prevailed during the era of Mao Zedong and the emperors who preceded him.
The package of constitutional amendments passed the nearly 3,000-member National People’s Congress almost unanimously, with just two opposing votes and three abstentions. The vote further underscored the total domination of Chinese politics by the 64-year-old Xi, who is simultaneously the head of state, leader of the ruling Communist Party and commander of the 1 million-member armed forces.
The move upends a system enacted by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1982 to prevent a return to the bloody excesses of a lifelong dictatorship typified by Mao’s chaotic 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.
“This marks the biggest regression in China’s legal system since the reform and opening-up era of the 1980s,” said Zhang Lifan, an independent Beijing-based political commentator. “I’m afraid that this will all be written into our history in the future,” Zhang said.
The change is widely seen as the culmination of Xi’s efforts since being appointed leader of the party in 2012 to concentrate power in his own hands and defy norms of collective leadership practiced over the past two decades. Xi has appointed himself to head bodies that oversee national security, finance, economic reform and other major initiatives, effectively sidelining the Communist Party’s No. 2 figure, Premier Li Keqiang.
In addition to scrapping the limitation that presidents can serve only two consecutive terms, the amendments also inserted Xi’s personal political philosophy into the preamble of the constitution, along with phrasing that emphasizes the party’s leadership. “It is rare nowadays to see a country with a constitution that emphasizes the constitutional position of any one political party,” Zhang said.
The legislature’s hand-picked delegates began voting in the midafternoon, with Xi leading the seven members of the party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee in casting their ballots on a stage inside a cavernous hall. He placed his orange ballot paper in a red box bearing the official seal of state.
Rank-and-file deputies then rose to vote on the floor of the hall as jaunty instrumental music played. The process ended in 10 minutes, and delegates returned to their seats while the votes were counted. Shortly after 3:50 p.m., the results were read over the public-address system and flashed briefly on a screen in the hall.
|China's so-called People Congress rubber-stamped Xi's constitutional amendment.|
The slide toward one-man rule under Xi has fueled concern that Beijing is eroding efforts to guard against the excesses of autocratic leadership. The head of the legislature’s legal affairs committee, Shen Chunyao, dismissed those worries as “speculation that is ungrounded and without basis.”
Shen told reporters that the party’s 90-year history has led to a system of orderly succession to “maintain the vitality and long-term stability of the party and the people. We believe in the future that we will continue with this path and discover an even brighter future,” Shen said.
In a sign of the issue’s sensitivity, government censors have aggressively scrubbed social media of expressions ranging from “I disagree” to “Xi Zedong.” A number of prominent Chinese figures have publicly protested the move, despite the risk of retaliation.
Officials have said the elimination of presidential term limits is aimed only at bringing the office of the president in line with Xi’s other positions atop the Communist Party and the Central Military Commission, which do not impose term limits. While some scholars questioned the wisdom of the move, others said they saw value in sending the message that Xi would be setting policy for many years to come.
“In fact, the more Xi Jinping’s position is consolidated and the longer his governing time is to last, the more secure it is for the continuity of the policies,” said Liu Jiangyong, a professor at Renmin University’s School of International Relations.
The move has crushed faint hopes for political reforms among China’s embattled liberal scholars and activists, who now fear even greater repression. China allows no political opposition in any form and has relentlessly persecuted independent groups seeking greater civic participation. Leading Chinese officials have repeatedly rejected any chance of adopting Western-style separation of powers or multiparty democracy.
Nevertheless, Xi’s confident, populist leadership style and tough attitude toward corruption have won him significant popular support. Zhao Minglin, 32, a vice president of a Beijing investment firm, said it would be easier for Xi to carry out his ambitious vision of raising living standards if more power were concentrated in his hands.
“I will definitely support this constitutional amendment and this government. This is a powerful and strong government,” Zhao said. He added, however, that he was concerned that the public discourse lacked a space for dissenting voices.
Why Abolishing Presidential Term Limits Is A Big Deal
It took just about two weeks from the public announcement to Sunday's legislative vote that erased presidential term limits from the constitution, potentially allowing Xi Jinping to rule China indefinitely.
"After it was announced, the move sent tremors through the Communist Party's intelligentsia," observes Zhang Xixian, an expert on party politics at the Central Party School in Beijing. But thanks to heavy government censorship of media and the Internet, there was little visible debate or opposition to the move.
The term limits were one of a number of political reforms enacted during more liberal times in the 1980s. The ease with which Xi swept the limits away suggests what shallow roots they had sunk into a land dominated for thousands of years by absolute monarchs.
Under the leadership of then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, the Communist Party decided in 1981 to "put an end to the virtually lifelong tenure of leading cadres, [and] change the over-concentration of power," in the words of an official document on the subject.
The following year, China amended its constitution, limiting the presidency to two five-year terms. The nation's president has less power than the head of the Communist Party and military, which carry no term limits.
But Zhang says there is an unwritten consensus among senior officials that party and military leadership are also limited to two five-year terms and that leaders at the apex of power would retire at age 68.
The early 1980s changes were largely symbolic, but important. The symbolism is that "while hereditary monarchs rule for life, democracies have presidential term limits," says Wu Guoguang, a political scientist at Canada's University of Victoria. In other words, the rules were intended to make China look like the people's republic it claims to be.
|Deng foresaw the coming of Xi Jinping and|
so he put in place a presidential term limit.
In fact, only one of China's eight top leaders in nearly seven decades of communist rule has retired and relinquished power on schedule, and that was Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao. All the others were either purged or found ways to cling to power despite formal and informal regulations.
Tenuous and superficial as the regulations were, Xi's breaking them is historically significant and seen by Chinese liberals as a big step backward. University of Victoria's Wu points out that Xi frequently exhorts officials not to forget the Communist Party's history and original mission. But just what was that mission?
The Communists promised to liberate China from the dictatorship of the Nationalists. Before that, the Nationalists promised to emancipate the nation from centuries of feudal autocracy under imperial dynasties. But, Wu argues, both Communists and Nationalists eventually betrayed their promises and came to resemble what they once tried to overthrow.
History aside, critics have also picked apart the Communist Party's various legal and political explanations for abolishing presidential term limits. The party claims its public opinion surveys show that officials and commoners approve of Xi's performance and want him to stay on. But they have not released any such survey, allowed others to conduct their own or let citizens express their opinions at the ballot box.
However, speak to lawmakers or ordinary people on the street and you will hear from many that they are pleased with Xi's progress in combatting corruption, his more assertive foreign policy and a resulting boost for China's international stature.
The party claims it does not intend for leaders to necessarily rule for life. The Central Party School's Zhang argues that if a leader does not perform well, the party's National Congress can keep him from getting another term. But that remains to be seen.
Crucially, the party argues that abolishing term limits puts the presidency in line with the unlimited tenures for the party and military heads — and that strengthening this "trinity" of leadership is good for long-term political stability.
But Wu points out that the "trinity" has no basis in Chinese law and that the three positions have been separate for most of Communist rule. If anything, he says, the "trinity" is "an institutional manifestation of the overconcentration of power in one person."
The party claims to govern China according to the nation's constitution. By that logic, its charter should be brought into line with the constitution, not vice versa, Wu adds. Instead of removing presidential term limits from the constitution, term limits for party general secretary should be written into the party's charter.
The Central Party School's Zhang predicts term limits may one day be rewritten into the constitution and the party charter. China's "transition from thousands of years of feudal rule to socialist democracy is more complex than we thought," he says. "It may be hard to make the transition stably in less than a century" since the founding of the people's republic. The full centennial will come in 2049, by which time Xi Jinping will be 96 years old.
|China execute hundreds of thousands every year.|