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

On March 11, a historic amendment to China’s constitution – the first in 14 years – was almost unanimously adopted by the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC), with 2,958 in favor, two against and three abstentions. It is unknown why the five national lawmakers did not support the amendment, but it is obvious that external criticisms have been focusing extensively on the lifting of presidential term limits.

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There are worldwide concerns and even fears that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is also general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), is set on staying in power indefinitely, just like an emperor for life. Those worries are understandable, but I have different views.

It was China’s visionary reformer Deng Xiaoping who added the term limits into the country’s constitution in 1982. The limits to two five-year terms were applied to most top positions, but the most powerful posts of general secretary of the CPC and chairman of the CMC were excepted. However, since China’s reform and opening-up, so far there has never been any top leader choosing to remain in power for life.

In theory, even without any constitutional change, it was already possible for Xi to control supreme authority by leading the party and the army for life, if he wanted, just giving the symbolic position of president to others. So why did Xi bother to make the controversial move? According to China’s official explanation, “It is conducive to uphold the authority of the Central Committee of the party with comrade Xi Jinping at the core and also to unify the leadership.”

Apparently, Xi wants to strengthen his role as the “core” by fully consolidating power from the party, the army and the state as well. However, this does not necessarily mean that the end goal is for Xi to become an emperor, but it is likely a necessary means considered by Xi to clean the party continuously and to a greater degree and to rule China more consistently and effectively, so that he would be able to continue to pursue his ambitious “Chinese Dream.”

The ‘Chinese Dream’

Since 2012, Xi has been firmly marching toward his “Chinese Dream” – the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” In 2017, he clearly outlined a three-step roadmap for the “Chinese Dream,” aiming for China to become a moderately well-off society by 2020 (the 100th anniversary of the CPC), a modern socialist economy by 2035, and a prosperous and strong country by 2050 (the 100th anniversary of the PRC). In the amended constitution, “to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” was officially instituted as the ultimate national goal.

Also, since 2012, Xi has been pushing a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign across China, executed largely under the direction of his close aide Wang Qishan, the “anti-corruption czar.” As of last October, the campaign had netted 440 high-ranking officials and punished more than 1.5 million people for corruption. One can imagine that the campaign must have made many enemies for Xi and Wang and become a matter of life and death for them.

On March 17, as expected Xi was unanimously re-elected as president by the NPC, while Wang became vice-president. In the short and medium runs, their retention of top power is not only necessary for their personal safety but also for the continuity of their anti-corruption campaign. Moreover, their unspecified terms will be tactically helpful for them to win over the “fence-sitters” during the party’s fierce factional struggles.

Notably, a “supervisory commission” was purposely created as a state organ in the amended constitution so as to facilitate the anti-corruption campaign. In fact, there are another two profound constitutional amendments.

First, the addition of a political philosophy called “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” elevated Xi to the same political level as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, marking China as officially stepping into a new “era of Xi.”

The term “Thought” was first used for Mao, while the term “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” was created for Deng. It seems that Xi wants to become both Mao and Deng, but his final status in history will largely depend on his future achievements rather than great titles.

Second, a sentence that “the leadership of the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics” was added into the constitution. This change is quite significant.

It shows that the CPC is displaying the so-called “Four Confidences,” namely confidences in its chosen path, guiding theories, political system, and culture. Believing in pragmatism, the CPC now openly and confidently tells the whole world that a one-party dominant system is the best for China based on its successful track record, although it is against Western democratic ideas such as checks and balances and multi-party competition.

For a considerably long period in the future, Xi is going to hold absolute power in China. We know “power tends to corrupt,” but it is to be hoped that Xi will use his power wisely to further his “Chinese Dream.” At worst, even if Xi turns out to be no exception to the rule and abuses his power eventually, what he can do is limited, as Chinese society has changed significantly compared with the Mao era.

Sun Xi

Sun Xi, a China-born alumnus of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is an independent commentary writer based in Singapore. He is also founder and CEO of ESGuru, a Singapore-based consultancy firm specializing in environmental, social and governance issues.

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