Chinese politics has undergone a stunning retrogression in the wake of a terse announcement by Xinhua News Agency on February 25 that an impending revision of the state constitution would abrogate term limits for the posts of President and Vice-President. The party leadership, said Xinhua, wanted to “remove the expression that the President and Vice-President … ‘shall serve no more than two consecutive terms’ from the country’s Constitution” (Xinhua, February 25). This constitutional amendment, which seems meant to render President Xi Jinping leader for life, means that China could return to the era of Chairman Mao, when the Great Helmsman, who had no term limits, ruled by diktat. Political intrigue and factional in-fighting became the order of the day as economic and social development ground to a halt (Radio Free Asia, December 29, 2016).
Since Xi became party General Secretary at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, one of his prime concerns has the accrual of personal power. Xi has disregarded instructions by Deng Xiaoping that no leader should pursue a cult of personality, and that China should be ruled by a collective leadership, namely the Politburo Standing Committee. The success of Xi’s relentless self-aggrandizement became apparent at the 19th Party Congress last October, where Xi’s faction, consisting mostly of his protégés from Fujian and Zhejiang, were elevated to senior positions in the party, government and army. Xi became “core of the party leadership” and its zuigaotongshuai (highest commander), while “Xi Jinping Thought” was inserted in the CCP Constitution as the guiding principle of the party and nation. Xi Thought is also slated for enshrinement in the PRC Constitution, an amended version of which is due for approval by the plenary session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) scheduled for early March. (HK0I.com, October 25, 2017; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], October 24, 2017).
So what exactly does the removal of term limits for the post of President mean? In an editorial, the conservative Global Times noted that the constitutional amendment did not necessarily mean “that the Chinese president will have a lifelong tenure.” But the Times cited party ideologues as saying that that China needs “stable, strong and consistent leadership”, particularly from 2020 to 2035 (Global Times, February 26). According to a commentary by the People’s Daily Online, the tradition of sanweiyiti (three positions in one person), a reference to the three positions of Party General Secretary, State President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) being held by the same person, has proven “beneficial to upholding and safeguarding the authority of the central authorities and concentrating unified leadership.” The party mouthpiece said the constitutional revision would facilitate the continuation of the sanweiyiti tradition (People’s Daily Online, February 26).
Assuming that Xi’s health holds up, it is now almost certain that he will remain president until 2028, and possibly 2033, when he will be 80 years of age. The 53-year-old Shaanxi native will also hold his two post powerful posts–CCP General Secretary and CMC Chairman–until 2027, or possibly 2032. The CCP Constitution has no restriction on the age or terms of office of its General Secretary or commander-in-chief. Respected party historian Zhang Lifan went so far as to say that “Xi Jinping may even maintain a decisive role [in governance] until 2049, the centenary of the establishment of the People’s Republic, when he will be 96 years old” (Duowei News, February 26). Apart from Xi’s apparently megalomaniacal proclivities, the best indication that he aspires to become “Mao Zedong of the 21st century” is his lack of interest in picking a successor. According to political reforms that Deng initiated in the early 1980s, the party must establish a bloodless and institutionalized succession protocol. Despite periodic hiccups, power was peacefully and orderly transferred from Deng to Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], November 8, 2017).
If Xi were following the well-established party norm of staying for just two terms as General Secretary and State President, he would already have groomed young talent to succeed him and Premier Li Keqiang. This would have necessitated the induction of at least one or two of the so-called “Sixth-Generation leaders” (those born from the late 1950s to the late 1960s) into the Politburo Standing Committee during the 19th Party Congress. Instead, only a few Sixth Generation members were appointed to the ordinary Politburo (See China Brief, February 13). After all, if Xi is bent on holding onto power until 2027/2028 or 2032/2033, there is no reason for him to pick a successor so early in the game.
In tandem with boosting his own powers, Xi has pulled out all the stops to ensure the CCP’s tight control over all aspects of Chinese life. The propaganda machinery has gone into overdrive stressing the near-omnipotence of the party–and its total dominance over all sectors of the polity. The recently ended Third Plenum of the 19th Central Committee deliberated over the key issue of the “reform of the systems of the party and state.” The Plenum Communiqué said the leadership hoped that the reforms–details of which have not been announced–would ensure that party and government units would have “well-equipped institutions, scientific regulations and paradigms, and high-efficiency operations.” At the same time, however, the Communiqué stressed that the ultimate goal of the reform of party and state institutions was “improving and upholding the institution of the party’s comprehensive leadership… strengthening the party’s leadership over the work of all sectors [of the polity] and ensuring that party leadership will be stronger and more forceful” (People’s Daily, February 28; Phoenix Television [Beijing], February 28).
Indeed, one focus of the upcoming constitutional change is to insert into its first article the clause that “the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is the most fundamental characteristic of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Given the repeated exhortation by senior cadres that all party members must “be in utmost unison with ‘core’ Xi Jinping in thoughts and deeds,” supporting the party means, in essence, professing fealty to Xi (Cable News Hong Kong, February 28; People’s Daily, October 28, 2017).
That Xi and his advisers were nervous about a negative reception to his bid for life leadership can be gleaned from the fact that after the February 25 announcement of the constitutional revision, the CCP’s formidable propaganda and IT control apparatus immediately swung into action. All sensitive words including “emperor,” “coronation,” “Mao Zedong,” “life-long tenure,” “dynasty,” “retrogression” and “immigration” (a reference to Chinese who want to leave the country) were algorithmically erased from social media chat platforms. Even the phrase “I disagree” was banned. Another taboo word was Yuan Shikai, the feudalistic warlord general who tried to crown himself emperor after the 1911 revolution led by Dr Sun Yat-sen that put an end to the Qing Dynasty (Voice of America, February 27; China Digital Times, February 25).
Yet in spite of media censorship, several liberal intellectuals were bold enough to voice their opposition to the apparent reinstatement of Maoist dictatorial rule. One example was the appeal made by public intellectual and former China Youth Daily editor Li Datong to NPC members not to approve the constitutional amendment. Li noted that Deng Xiaoping’s decision on term limits–enshrined in the current constitution–represented an attempt to learn from the bitter lessons of Mao’s tyranny and rule of personality. “Abolition of the term limits of state leaders will become the laughingstock of civilized countries around the world,” Li said. “This historical retrogression carries with it the seeds of China again lapsing into turmoil” (Radio French International, February 27; BBC Chinese Service, February 26).
On a practical level, a number of Chinese and foreign-based analysts have cited the danger of the near-total absence of checks and balances. With his status elevated to that of demi-god Mao, even his most trusted aides would not dare challenge Xi’s decisions (United Daily News [Taipei], February 26; New York Times Chinese Edition, February 25). According to New-York based exiled dissident Hu Ping, Xi’s aspiration to become another Mao Zedong and Stalin could result in the “leader for life” making one mistake after another. Hu noted that in the Chinese political context, a paramount leader by definition stands for the correct party and policy lines–and he is incapable of making mistakes. “To avoid being pushed out of office, a paramount leader will never admit to making errors … and he will commit even bigger blunders to cover up past mistakes,” said Li (Radio Free Asia, February 26).
Xi’s stunning one-upmanship–coupled with his insistence on the Maoist principle that the party is in charge of everything–could also have serious implications for society and the economy. Wu Qiang, a former politics lecturer at Tsinghua University, said the party’s proposals for “the reform of party and state institutions” could result in the party spreading its power to every corner of society. “The party will exercise control over enterprises, social organizations, foreign companies … [including] all sectors that used to be under the jurisdiction of the market economy,” he told the Hong Kong media. Wu said party cells will be built even in Chinese enterprises as well as student organizations overseas to manifest “the institutional management by the party” (Cable News Hong Kong, March 1).
That Xi is determined to run China in his own mold–and to banish all voices of opposition–was further confirmed by a series of personnel changes in the past fortnight. Members of the Xi Jinping faction have continued to be promoted to top slots in the security apparatus. Affiliates of the rival Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction once headed by former president Hu Jintao have been further marginalized. And fellow princelings– the offspring of erstwhile party elders–who do not see eye to eye with Xi have been penalized. Take for example, Vice-Minister of Public Police Wang Xiaohong, who first worked with Xi when they were serving in Fuzhou, Fujian Province in the 1990s. Wang, who doubled as police chief in the Beijing municipality, was at the end of February promoted Minister of State Security, in charge of the PRC intelligence apparatus. State Councillor Yang Jing, who was Secretary-General of the State Council and a stalwart member of the CYL Faction, was demoted to ordinary ministerial status owing to unnamed “disciplinary infractions”. And companies backed by princelings who have apparently failed to convince Xi of their loyalty have been subjected to regulatory strictures. Anbang Insurance, for example, which enjoys the backing of at least two of the party’s most prominent families, was last week taken over by the China Insurance Regulatory Commission (Apple Daily, February 29; Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], February 25).
According to Zhang Lifan, there can be no dispute that “the CCP is going down the road of the rule of men, and that the authority of the top leader will be strengthened.” Zhang is worried that the party and its senior cadres may fall victim to corruption because of “the lack of supervision by other political forces, by the media and by the public” (Ming Pao, March 1). In his Political Report to the 19th Party Congress four months ago, Xi asked the world to consider adopting elements of “Chinese wisdom and the Chinese agenda,” which, he claimed would usher in “a great modern socialist country… that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful” (Xinhua, October 27, 2017). The president’s lust for power and his apparent determination to bring back the much-maligned norms of Chairman Mao, however, have caused some to question whether this lofty goal could ever be accomplished under the watch of China’s new “emperor for life.”