China Scraps Presidential Term Limits
The National People’s Congress (NPC) of the People’s Republic of China has voted to abolish term limits for the president and vice-president of the People’s Republic. The constitutional amendment passed easily through the nearly 3,000 member legislative chamber, with 2,958 votes for, two against, three abstentions, and one invalid ballot.
Prior to the start of the third plenary session of the 13th National People’s Congress on Mar. 5, 2018, the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) proposed removing language stating the “President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China ‘shall serve no more than two consecutive terms’” from the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China.
The Feb. 25 proposal by the CPC follows earlier proposals by the Party to enshrine “Xi Jinping Thought” in the state Constitution alongside “Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, and the important thought of the Three Represents” as the guiding ideological dogma for CPC rule.
China’s legislature, the unicameral National People’s Congress, is composed of nearly 3,000 delegates — in the current 13th NPC, 2,980 delegates were sent to Beijing — representing the various constituencies across China. Elected every five years, the full NPC meets yearly for 10 to 14 days every spring to review the past year’s activities and approve plans for the future, including electing officials to the high offices of state and amending the state Constitution.
Observers note that while “elections” do occur for NPC delegates, the vast majority of delegates are rank-and-file CPC members, with the remaining NPC seats filled by CPC-approved or CPC-aligned political organizations of the “United Front.” As such, while the Constitution vests the NPC with significant powers and crucial functions befitting a powerful lawmaking body, in practice the CPC drafts and approves of legislation at its Party Congresses before passing it on to the full NPC for formal approval by delegates “handpicked” by the CPC.
As such, the announcement by the CPC to abolish term limits in the ensuing NPC session was not a test of whether or not such a proposal would pass, but rather a sign of the consolidation of power in one man: Xi Jinping, the current President of the People’s Republic of China; the present General Secretary of the CPC; and the incumbent Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) — a trio of titles that makes him head of state, head of Party, and commander in chief of the military.
Ever since the deaths of top leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping in 1976 and 1997, respectively, the CPC has observed a general policy of limiting leaders’ time in office and governing through collective consensus of the top Party officials. The 1982 Constitution, promulgated by a CPC wary of the political instability wrought by Mao’s cult of personality during and after the Cultural Revolution, limited the President (and Vice-President) to no more than two successive five-year terms of office. In successive Party Congresses after the death of Deng, Party consensus produced an unwritten retirement age of 68.
Xi Jinping worked his way up the CPC ranks, starting as a county-level party secretary in 1969 and becoming governor of Fujian in 1999, Party chief of Zhejiang in 2002, and finally Party chief of Shanghai in 2007 before being appointed Vice-President in 2008. He became General Secretary of the CPC and Chairman of the CMC in 2012 before being elected President of China in 2013.
Xi spearheaded a massive anti-corruption campaign upon entering office, deposing several high-ranking Party officials (and certain possible political rivals) in an effort to rein in rampant corruption and impose discipline upon the CPC ranks. In terms of ideology, Xi has espoused a “China Dream,” with a rejuvenated and fully developed China taking its place as one of the major world powers by 2049 among his goals.
The removal of the presidential two-term limit allows Xi to stay on indefinitely past the expected end of his second term in 2023. The NPC, in the same vote on Mar. 11, also approved amendments to the state Constitution to create a “National Supervisory Commission” — a new disciplinary body to oversee anti-corruption efforts — and formally incorporate “Xi Jinping Thought,” along with several associated phrases and concepts, into the state Constitution.
With these new developments, Xi is now one of the most powerful (if not the most powerful) Chinese leaders since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. While critics have warned that the removal of term limits will lead to rampant authoritarianism and disrupt the delicate process of leadership succession developed over the course of the past three decades, vigorous online censorship in China and a spirited defense of the amendment by Chinese officials have smothered any noticeable open dissent in China.
With the final institutional barriers to total rule removed, it remains to be seen what Xi’s endgame is — how long does he intend to stay as leader of China? What means shall he use to breathe life to his “China Dream?” How shall he deal with open internal dissent, such as in Hong Kong, or external challenges to his legitimacy, as in the case of Taiwan? And when the time comes, who shall succeed Xi Jinping?