It’s been a momentous month in Chinese politics, but the move to abolish the presidential term limit has overshadowed all else.
It took just two weeks – from the time it was announced to the near unanimous endorsement by the legislature – to make the most drastic revision to the state constitution since it was introduced in 1982, a change that sent shock waves through both Chinese society and the international community.
Now, the only clause that had prevented Xi Jinping from staying in power beyond 2023 has been removed from the constitution. Although Xi’s real power lies in his two other titles – Communist Party general secretary and Central Military Commission chairman – neither of which have term limits.
While media coverage is tightly controlled on the mainland, elsewhere many are asking whether it will mean Xi ruling indefinitely or becoming China’s president for life.
On the day of the announcement, state-run tabloid Global Times applauded the move but quoted “an authoritative person” as saying that the change did not equate to a lifelong tenure, without elaborating.
Similar articles followed in party mouthpiece People’s Daily, which stressed that the purpose of the amendment was to make the country’s three highest positions – head of the party, the military and the state – consistent.
In an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post, Xu Xianming, deputy procurator general and a member of the National People’s Congress who was involved in preparations for the constitutional revision, said categorically that scrapping the terms would not mean a lifetime presidency.
“The party made clear our rejection of lifetime tenure [for top leaders] in a resolution passed at the party’s 12th national congress in 1982,” he said, referring to a historic resolution first publicised in 1981.
That resolution was made by the leadership under Deng Xiaoping to avoid a repeat of the tumult and violence during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. All of the party elders had suffered personally during this time and were determined not to let it happen again.
Aiming to “put an end to the lifelong tenure of leading cadres [and] change the over-concentration of power”, the resolution was formally endorsed at the 1982 party congress and became the guiding principle for the revision of the party charter that year.
It became one of the most important amendments in China’s modern history, explicitly banning “any form of personal cult” and stating that “all major decisions must be decided democratically by the party’s collective leadership”. It also barred “any top leader from acting without consent and imposing his will on the party”.
Hailed by all sides as one of Deng’s important political legacies, some Western commentators believe Xi is now trying to undo the late paramount leader’s work, citing the abolition of term limits as the best example.
But Xu disagreed. “Deng set a good example himself … and Jiang [Zemin] and Hu [Jintao] both strictly observed these rules … The party charter is part of the legal framework of China,” Xu said, adding that the rules were “very clear”.
“This is a consensus reached by all party members. Xi Jinping is a firm believer in the rule of law, and his theory of ‘ruling the country through law’ and ‘putting power in the cage of regulations’ has greatly enhanced the understanding of our legal system. In China, we should see the party tradition and party regulations as part of the overall rule of law,” the state prosecutor said.
The aim of revising the constitution was to bring uniformity to the whole system, he said, and since the president was the only one of the three top roles with term limits, the change was necessary.
“You have to understand how our system works. In China, the constitution has to be in line with the party charter – not the other way round,” he said.
That consistency has become more important as China’s global influence has grown, with the leader now representing the country more often on the world stage.
“[The decision] is also based on [the needs] of international diplomacy. In any country, finding a dependable leader who can best represent the nation’s interests in not easy,” he said.
Another senior government source, who declined to be named, offered the same argument for the change.
“Xi is a capable leader who wants to make his mark in history,” he said. “Of course he wants to leave a good name, not a name that will be remembered for breaking the party rules.”
Three days before lawmakers endorsed the revision, Xi attended a meeting of delegates from Shandong province. In a carefully worded report released afterwards that made no reference to the amendment, Xi said a good party member must learn that “success does not have to rest with me”.
The phrase also has the connotation that a person should aim for a long-term goal while accepting the fact that they may not be there to see it come to fruition.
He went on to say that a good party member should not just aim for achievements during their time but should also prepare the ground for the next generation.
“Don’t focus on your personal gains. Leave behind a good name that can stand the test of time and the people,” he said.
The remark was immediately picked up by People’s Daily and Qiushi, appearing in headlines of both the newspaper and the party journal.
It was seen by some as a subtle message designed to allay concerns within the party, but for sceptics, the reality is that without a written clause in the constitution, there is nothing to stop Xi or any future leader from clinging to power forever. The term limits rule at least provided a clear idea of when a power transition would take place, and removing it creates uncertainty and risk.
Li Shuzhong, a policy adviser on the constitutional amendments and vice-president of the China University of Political Science and Law, said the revision could strengthen the party’s leadership and was necessary to meet the challenges of a “complicated internal and external environment”.
But he agreed that a clear power transition system was needed for the long term.
“We don’t have direct elections. Our [power succession] is done within the party through an internal mechanism, namely the designated successor system,” he said. “Without that, how do we find the next leader?”
Li was referring to the unwritten practice that sees a top leader choose a successor to take over two generations after him. Under that system, a successor is designated by a leader’s predecessor. That successor is then groomed by the incumbent. And the incumbent then chooses the person to take over from the designated successor.
This arcane system has helped to reduce factional conflict, but Xi decided to drop the practice during the five-yearly party congress in October, when Hu Chunhua – widely seen as Xi’s designated successor – was not promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee.
The anonymous official who spoke to the Post suggested that the party would tackle the succession issue when it next revised the party charter.
“We need to further improve our party charter. Every five years we update the party charter to address pressing issues,” he said. “So we can see how to use that opportunity to have better regulation [of power transitions].”
Li said the party charter would be revised in five years. “The party has a five-year plan for [updating] its rules and regulations. We will get new rules,” he said. “But details of the plan are confidential – a new round of planning for the next five years has just begun. It will be made public when it’s ready.”
Official news agency Xinhua reported last month that the revision process had begun, aimed at “establishing a comprehensive set of party rules to mark the party’s centenary [in 2021]”.
“By the time of the centenary, we should have a set of rules based on the party charter and complemented with other regulations to cover the party leadership and all other aspects,” the report said.
But many observers are sceptical about talk of tackling the succession issue and see it as a distraction to fend off criticism.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London and author of China in the Xi Jinping Era, said he did not expect Xi to introduce an alternative succession plan in the next five years.
“Xi has given no indication that he intends to put the succession issue back on the political agenda, after effectively removing it at the 19th congress – and confirmed this at this year’s National People’s Congress,” Tsang said.
“It is highly unlikely that there will be any arrangement for succession until Xi feels he has reached a point when he would like to consider retiring, if that point ever comes.”
Some are more optimistic.
In an article in The Washington Post last week, three analysts argued that Xi’s leadership was different to the strongman politics of Vladimir Putin in Russia or Kim Jong-un in North Korea.
For their research into personalist dictatorships, academics Erica Frantz, Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Joseph Wright looked at regimes in which leaders exercise power without much outside restraint, and the factors influencing how much say they ultimately had on policy.
They concluded that “while Xi has amassed power and sidelined rivals with a crackdown on corruption, he is still a party man”.
“Xi still operates within a well-institutionalised party system. High-level officials, while loyal, rose through the party apparatus, where competence remains an important criterion for promotion,” they wrote. “Research shows that when a leader rises up through an existing political party as Xi did, the party is more resilient to a leader’s attempts to control the system.”