Xi Jinping has become China's president for life after a clause restricting presidential terms is removed from the Chinese constitution. Photo: Reuters

The National People’s Congress (NPC) has long and widely been seen as a grand political theatre, where almost everything is tightly scripted by the ruling Communist Party of China and all actors know and meticulously perform their role. Its latest annual session that ended on Monday certainly reinforced that image.

During the past two weeks, there were many moments of high political theater in what is constitutionally China’s “highest organ of state power” but practically a rubber-stamp legislature. The culmination was Xi Jinping’s declaration of loyalty to the country’s constitution after he was unanimously re-elected on Saturday as president with no limit to his term in office.

In a meticulously choreographed ceremony, Xi solemnly pledged his “allegiance to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China to safeguard the constitution’s authority, [and] fulfill [his] legal obligations.” Xi was the first Chinese president to take such a public oath upon assuming office.

Commenting about his act, an NPC delegate told Xinhua, the tightly censored nation’s official news agency, that “by taking the lead in swearing the oath, the president is telling the public that everyone is equal in front of the law, and there is no exception.”

This comment actually echoed what Xi said a little more than five years ago. In a speech to mark the 30th anniversary of the PRC’s modern constitution on December 4, 2012, the then newly appointed leader said: “No organization or individual has the privilege to overstep the constitution and the law.”

In a way, by publicly swearing his loyalty to the constitution on Saturday, it seems Xi wanted to show that he had implemented what he had said in 2012.

But while what he said then generated hope (albeit briefly), what he swore on Saturday probably provokes concern among some Chinese.

Xi’s 2012 address inspires hope

In his 2012 address, Xi orated: “Rule of the nation by law means, first and foremost, ruling the nation in accord with the constitution; the crux in governing by laws is to govern in accord with the constitution.”

In what was enthusiastically described by Chinese state-run outlets, such as the China Daily and the Global Times, as his commitment to faithfully uphold the constitution and to boost the rule of law in the one-party state, Xi also admitted the flawed implementation of the document, the lack of mechanisms to implement it and the abuse of power among some officials. Consequently, he pledged to probe any constitutional violation, establish mechanisms to restrain and supervise power and promised that the party would act within the framework of the constitution and the law.

Indeed, though it’s relatively progressive document that contains several central tenets that resemble those in constitutions of Western democracies – such as those about the constitution’s supreme authority and the citizens’ fundamental rights –  it was then largely ignored.

That’s why his comments generated a lot of attention and expectation among many people both inside and outside the Asian nation. The People’s Daily, the country’s top paper, ran a number of commentaries  expounding and praising Xi’s remarks.

They were optimistic because Xi’s 2012 speech not only strongly extolled the virtues of the constitution but also came in the early months of his reign. All of this led to a belief that under him, China’s constitution would finally be empowered and, consequently, the power of the CPC and its leaders would be diluted or controlled and the people’s rights respected.

Death of constitutionalism

But such enthusiasm soon disappeared. As noted, not long after that, Xi’s speech wasn’t included in a volume of his important speeches. Together with this, any political discourse about China’s constitution and constitutionalism vanished.

More important, in terms of his actions, Xi did almost the opposite of what he preached in his 2012 speech on constitutionalism.

Instead of preserving its supreme authority and making sure that “no organization [such as the CPC] or individual [such as himself] has the privilege to overstep the Constitution and the law,” as Xi himself and indeed China’s constitution (Article 5) stated, he got it changed to expand his power and extend his rule.

Indeed, the three most fundamental changes in China’s latest constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved by the NPC on March 11 – namely listing a National Supervisory Commission (NSC) as a new state organ in the constitution, enshrining “Xi Jinping Thought” into the document and removing the two-term presidential limit from it – were all for that purpose.

With the creation of NSC, its inclusion in the constitution, and the appointment of one of his trusted aides as chief of this new anti-corruption “super agency,” Xi is now allowed to police not just party cadres but also all the other groups and members of Chinese society.

As it was hallowed in the CPC’s charter last autumn and in the PRC’s constitution last week, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” is now “the guiding principle” for not only the world’s biggest political party but also its most populous country. Any opposition to Xi and his thought by a party member or a Chinese citizen can be seen as doctrinal heresy.

Also, with the inclusion of his political doctrine, whose ultimate goal is to make China “a great modern socialist country” by the mid-21st century, into the country’s top law, it’s very likely that Xi will stay at the helm for a long time, perhaps even for life, to oversee and see it through.

This is confirmed by the third – and most consequential – amendment, namely the abolition of the term limits. That the PRC’s president and vice-president “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms” (Article 79) was probably the most advanced idea of the 1982 Constitution. Such a clause was inserted to ensure that the Chinese would never again suffer from the calamities they had endured during Mao Zedong’s tyrannical lifetime rule.

Judging by these constitutional amendments, it is apparent that the statement that no “individual may enjoy the privilege of being above the constitution and the law” doesn’t apply to Xi.

With these crucial and far-reaching changes, China’s 1982 Constitution is no longer the same. In some ways, it can now be seen as Xi’s constitution. In that sense, he pledged his allegiance not purely to the PRC’s constitution but also to his own constitution.

In fact, as evidenced by many developments during this 2018 parliamentary session, such as the appointments of Xi’s trusted associates to key government posts and their overwhelming approval, not only China’s constitution but also other key institutions, including the party-run NPC, are about, of, by or for Xi.

All in all, while it’s not certain whether he will successfully build “China into a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful” as he vows, it’s certain that the “new era” he is leading his 1.4-billion-people nation into is also Xi’s “era” –  not with “Chinese characteristics” but rather with “Xi characteristics”.

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Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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