In March 2018, the National People’s Congress of China will vote for a number of amendments to the constitution, most importantly the proposal to drop the two-term limit on the presidency and vice-presidency.
The limit was introduced in 1982 at the start of China’s reforms. The 1975 and 1978 constitutions lacked not only the limit but also the post itself. Liu Shaoqi served as president from 1959 only to go down in disgrace during the Cultural Revolution. There was no attempt to find a replacement.
In the 1980s, the presidency of China was largely ceremonial, a position for aged party veterans, who did not combine it with other offices. Between 1983 and 1988, Li Xiannian was president, followed by Yang Shangkun – between 1988 and 1993. The architect of China’s reforms, Deng Xiaoping, was not keen on taking the post.
In the early 1990’s, Jiang Zemin emerged as a “three-in-one” leader, being simultaneously CPC general secretary, chairman of the Central Military Commission and president. This model was inherited by his successors Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. As the holder of party, state and military power, a party leader represents his country on the international stage as president ( “chairman” to use the local term) and does not need to delegate his powers to another person, as was the case in the 1980s.
The former forecasts regarding China’s future were based on a 10-year paradigm, under which Xi should resign as general secretary of the CPC Central Committee in 2022 and as president in 2023. Now, judging by all appearances, this term will be extended at least by five years until 2027-2028.
The lifting of terms limits of the Chinese president is just one of many amendments that the CPC Central Committee proposes to introduce to the constitution. There are plans to upgrade the ideological guidelines and constitutionalize the guiding role of “Xi Jinping’s ideas on socialism with Chinese specifics in a new epoch.” Internationally, the country will build a “community of common destiny,” as proposed by Xi Jinping. It will be recognized that the CPC leadership is the “determinative feature” of socialism with Chinese specifics. Other amendments will introduce a new vertical of oversight bodies due to become the institutional pivot of Xi Jinping’s anticorruption policy.
The obvious growth of Xi Jinping’s political and ideological prestige points to his likely emergence as an influential leader, who will be able, like Deng Xiaoping, to steer Chinese politics even after his formal withdrawal from political life. This makes it possible to consolidate power and address long overdue problems, while simultaneously increasing the risk of political planning errors, if members of the elite and expert community are afraid to argue with the “party nucleus” (Xi was given this status in 2016).
Western writers’ speculations as to whether or not the extension of his term of office will lead to a surge of discontent and destabilize the country seem divorced from reality. For the majority of people this will not be an imposed decision. The public supports Xi’s efforts to fight corruption and shares his declared goals of “the Chinese nation’s great revival” and enhancing China’s global influence.
The extension of his powers is a serious signal to Chinese elites. They must understand that his policies are long-term and it is unrealistic for them to hope to weather the storm and live to see the anticorruption drive slacken.
If the current president stays in power until the end of the next decade and continues to consistently battle corruption, the Chinese political system might acquire a new quality. It will draw closer to the Singapore model that Deng Xiaoping was fond of. Xi Jinping stands a chance of going down as the proper heir to Lee Kuan Yew.
The extension will influence the surrounding world as well. The One Belt, One Road initiative, Xi’s priority, is likely to fully materialize in the latter half of the 2020’s. In this regard, the extension of his powers is emerging as a factor that will impact the economic development of Eurasian countries, including Russia.
The toughening of US policies indirectly plays into the hands of Xi Jinping. While the West allowed China to develop unhindered, as was the case at the start of its reforms in the 1980s, the Chinese authorities could experiment with democracy. But now Washington has steered a course toward confrontation with the “revisionist” China. Under these circumstances, Beijing has an additional motivation to concentrate power.
If Trump pursues a policy of intense pressure with China, Xi Jinping is the best positioned Chinese leader to resist it. In so doing, Xi will be aware that he will remain in power even after Trump leaves the White House for good.