Strongman tactics: The story behind recent constitutional change in China
The message from China’s National People’s Congress was loud and clear. A vote to amend the country’s constitution and abolish a two-term limit for president was approved with just two votes against, three abstentions and one spoiled ballot paper.
After five years in office, Xi Jinping is now president for life (if he wishes) and China’s most powerful leader in decades. The move was not unexpected. But it gives China-watchers lots to think about.
Dr Lu Xi, Assistant Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, says, “Abolishing the limits on presidential terms does not only embody Xi’s personal willingness to take complete control, but it also embodies the Communist Party’s wishes.
Creating an amalgam of Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong
“The abolition of the two-term limit and China’s step from autocracy toward dictatorship is an attempt by the Party to consolidate its legitimacy,” Dr. Lu explains. “The Party is trying to create an amalgam of Deng Xiaoping, who led China through massive economics reforms, together with the charisma of Mao Zedong, in order to strengthen its legitimacy in the new era.”
It’s interesting to note that the two-term limit on presidential terms was introduced by Deng in 1982 to prevent a repeat of the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao’s decades-long reign. The chaos only ended when Mao died.
“Reinforcing Xi’s individual power means more to his autocracy within the Communist Party than outside, says Dr Lu. “Over the past 30 years, Beijing used economic growth to justify its legitimacy, and that growth was exactly what local officials wanted. This alignment of interests allowed the centre to manage local officials.”
A strong signal that President Xi’s current reforms will continue
However, under Xi’s new policies, these interests are no longer in sync. “What the central government now wants is social equality, pollution control, poverty alleviation, and so on. Implementing these policies won’t bring tangible benefits to local governments and in fact – in the short run – will only aggravate their fiscal burden.
“The old way of managing central-versus-local relations cannot work anymore. To overcome these conflicts, enhancing Xi’s personal authority is necessary. And the lifting of term limits sends the very clear signal that his current reforms will continue – no matter how strong local resistance might be,” says Dr Lu.
“After decades of high-speed economic growth in China, maintaining that pace was impossible. Anywhere in the world, a weakening economy can come with the perception of a weaker government, a risk President Xi – and the Communist Party – would not wish to entertain.”
Formally legalising CCP’s status
As the implications of the constitutional amendment are digested, some points are immediately apparent. “First, it formally legalizes the CCP’s status,” says Dr Lu. “Many commenters have ignored this, but as I have said, it reflects the Party’s need to defend its legitimacy. We can also infer that the resilience of authoritarianism will continue in the future.
“Second, central government is delegating more legislative power to local government. According to the constitutional amendment, prefectural cities are being given more freedom in enacting local laws and regulations. Since Xi took position, many of local powers have been centralized, so this could be regarded as some kind of compensation for them.
“Finally, the setting up of the National Supervision Commission, a new anti-graft agency, has been announced. We don’t have much detail yet, but we can expect that the anti-corruption campaign will be regularised and institutionalised – not least because it is the most efficient tool for ensuring effective implementation of Xi’s new policies. This also signals Xi’s determination in driving forward his reforms.”
Wondering about those two rogue votes at the National People’s Congress against the abolition of the term limit?
In the Financial Times, Wu Qiang, an independent political commentator in Beijing, said, “The two opposition votes were probably the result of “personal conscience”. Dissent is rare and not usually tolerated. The same report says, “China has strictly censored criticism of the amendment since it was made public last month, with terms ranging from “I disagree” to the name of President Xi himself blocked on social media services.”
China’s “paramount leader” has moved decisively to concentrate his power since becoming leader of the party in 2012. He now holds three key positions, as head of the party, the military and the state. Neither of the first two have term limits.
“There had not been such an explicit rule to restrict the term lengths for those two titles,” says Dr Lu. “Deng Xiaoping was never president; Jiang Zemin retained his military position after retiring from the other two. Before lifting the term limit on the presidency, Xi Jinping had already consolidated his power in the other two roles which means a lot. Currently, no one is able to threaten Xi or even get close to challenging him.”
Does that mean that Xi will be in power for the rest of his life? Not necessarily.
The People’s Daily says the abolition of the two-term limit for the presidency does not “imply a system of lifelong leadership”. But there is the prospect of what The Economist calls ‘bad emperor’ risk. “If Mr Xi is set on a course that will prove a big mistake, nobody will be able to stop him. The abolition of term limits may be just such a blunder.”