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Xi Jinping’s Latest Power Move, in Context

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China Power

Xi Jinping’s Latest Power Move, in Context

The removal of term limits is the culmination of a carefully laid path to increased power.

Xi Jinping’s Latest Power Move, in Context

Pedestrians, one wearing a mask, walk by a poster of Chinese President Xi Jinping on a street in Beijing (Oct. 26, 2017).

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

This past weekend, Xinhua announced through an “authorized release” that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee has proposed a number of amendments to China’s constitution for consideration by the Chinese legislature, the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC), in March. Tucked in the 14th proposed change was the constitutional greenlight for a future circumstance many observers already expect — Xi Jinping staying in power after his second term as president ends.

The targeted section was the third paragraph of Article 79 in the Constitution, which concerns the presidency and vice presidency. As it reads in the Xinhua release, the Central Committee proposes altering the paragraph from “The term of office of the President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China is the same as that of the National People’s Congress, and they shall serve no more than two consecutive terms” to “The term of office of the President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China is the same as that of the National People’s Congress” — thus removing the two-term limitation. No doubt the proposal will be accepted by the NPC.

The pace of Xi’s centralization of power since the October 2017 19th Party Congress has caught even experienced China watchers off-guard. Rather than slowing down to “catch his breath,” Xi appears to have decided he should capitalize on his gains. As was covered by The Diplomat, the 19th Party Congress saw Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era added into the CCP Constitution, which elevated Xi to the ideological authority of Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong through the inclusion of his name (an honor that predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin did not receive). The Congress also notably failed to produce any clear successor to Xi, which signaled the potential for him to serve on as head of the party when his second term ends in 2022. If it comes to pass, this would defy the custom for Party leaders who are 68 or older when a Party Congress meets to retire (Xi will be 69 in 2022).

But Xi’s power has only grown since the Congress, making the above scenario eminently plausible. Following the addition to the CCP Constitution that the People’s Liberation Army would “implement Xi Jinping’s thinking on strengthening the military” and that the “Chairperson of the Central Military Commission [currently Xi] assumes overall responsibility over the work of the Commission,” the November 2017 “Opinions on Comprehensively Deepening Implementation of the Central Military Commission Chairman Responsibility System” reiterated Xi’s military leadership in his capacity as chairman of the CMC.

Following suit on January 1, 2018, the paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP) was placed under the sole command of the CMC. It previously reported to both the CMC and the State Council’s Ministry of Public Security. Prominent commentaries explained the importance of the move and the need defend the responsibility of the CMC chairman.

Party propaganda has played its role in letting the public know of their leader’s growing power. From November 6-8, 2017, former Politburo Standing Committee members Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, and Zhang Gaoli all penned People’s Daily commentaries pledging support for Xi and his main initiatives. Xi has also been given a host of new grandiose titles. The most telling has been “lingxiu,” or leader, previously reserved by People’s Daily only for Mao. The paper named Xi lingxiu for the first time in January under the pen name “Xuan Yan,” meaning “declaration.” The title naturally helps pave the way for Xi to take on the powers that Mao himself once wielded as lingxiu. 

And on top of it all is the growing reality of the National Supervision Commission, a national “political organ” with local equivalents that consolidates the anti-graft powers of various government departments and has the authority to investigate anyone exercising public authority. The commission was a key result of the 19th Party Congress, but will also receive the blessing of the Chinese Constitution in March once the Central Committee’s proposals are accepted. The proposed changes state, “The PRC National Supervision Commission is the highest supervisory organ,” adding constitutional authority to the body. This new organ essentially expands the Party’s discipline enforcement powers over all officials, including those not in the CCP, by creating a nationwide bureaucracy that works alongside the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) out of the same offices. Xi’s ability to go after those who resist or delay implementing his reform initiatives — or his political enemies — is set to be enhanced.

The above record of Xi’s growing power since the 19th Party Congress places the proposed removal of presidential term limits in perspective. It strongly suggests that Xi may not step down after his second term — or even his third, for that matter. Observers should also recall that on January 29, top Xi ally and anti-corruption chief Wang Qishan was given a clear shot at the vice presidency when he was named a deputy to the NPC from Hunan province, an appointment that would have been deemed unusual in previous years given his retirement age of 69. As Charlotte Gao notes, article 82 of the Chinese Constitution allows for the vice president to assist the president in his work and exercise presidential powers entrusted to him by the president. Article 84 stipulates that if the presidency is vacant, the vice president will succeed to the office of the president. The Central Committee’s proposed changes would remove vice presidential term limits as well.

As demonstrated, it appears that “team Xi” could be in power for a very long time indeed. China’s new lingxiu is to be defended by the military and the PAP. It is increasingly unlikely that party-state officials will miss the message of Xi’s status, given its prevalence in Party propaganda; even if they do, the supervision commissions will likely keep them in line or remove them from power. If Wang indeed becomes China’s vice president, then Xi could empower him to act once again as his chief ally, and Xi’s ambitious policies would likely be secure even if something were to happen to him.

In conclusion, China and the world should get used to the new era of Xi — and all of its implications.

David Gitter is the director of the Party Watch Initiative, a program of the Project 2049 Institute that analyzes the writings and activities of the Chinese Communist Party.