By Jamie Morse
The Chinese Communist Party announced last week its intent to propose a motion to remove the two-term limit of the office of President. This move effectively guarantees President Xi Jinping the role of head of state until retirement – far beyond the ten year limit his predecessors all had to adhere to.
This was revealed by China’s state news agency Xinhua in a brief list of elements of the constitution that could be subject to change at the annual National People’s Congress in March. Although framed as merely a proposal, the move has been viewed both domestically and internationally as something that will be passed near-unanimously by a government that has worked to purge all critics of its leader from positions of power. This news is another step towards Xi, 64, retaining undisputed control over the country for as long as he chooses.
Suspicions of Xi’s desire to stay as China’s head of state have circled since the National Congress of October last year, during which he bucked the trend of Presidents aligning themselves with a future political heir. Instead of doing so the National Congress enshrined the ideology of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ into the constitution in a move which positioned Xi as a unique revered politician on the level of Chairman Mao Zedong.
International coverage of President Xi has highlighted his presidency’s focus on dramatically reshaping the political landscape in China in his personal favour, however domestically the state news has framed Xi’s bold moves – such as the targeted marginalisation and deselection of influential political foes – as part of a campaign to root out ‘corruption’ within the single ruling party.
Protestors in Hong Kong, one of the rare provinces in China in which protest is not always punished by arrest, carried banners depicting Xi alongside Adolf Hitler and Chairman Mao and claimed that ‘Emperor Xi’ was ‘reviving the monarchy’. The same right to criticism was not extended to Chinese users on their country’s heavily censored internet however, as any search on Chinese social media platform Weibo containing the phrases “continued rule”, “two term limit” or “heil” reportedly came back with zero results.
This is not the first time a President has opposed the traditional two-term limit, however. President Jiang Zemin, notable for being the president who oversaw the transfer of Hong Kong back to China, fought his scheduled retirement in favour of a gradual course of sacrificing duties whilst still holding his title. This move was criticised within the party as an attempt to share power with his future successor Hu Jintao, and Jiang was ultimately encouraged to step down. Xi differs from Jiang in that he has systematically eradicated dissent from within party ranks leaving nobody to oppose any power grabs he feels inclined to attempt.
This current move’s significance has been disputed. Despite term limits being set to change, China’s international image as an authoritarian state has led some to question whether removing term limits would simply be China acknowledging a façade of democracy that is by this point already threadbare. The United States response was non-confrontational, with White House press secretary
Sarah Huckabee Sanders taking the stance that the issue was “a decision for China to make about what’s best for their country”.
As with most political news that emerges from China, any indication of the consequences of President Xi’s actions has been shrouded by the state run propaganda machine. Only President Xi’s future actions will indicate what this actually means for China in political terms. Despite this there are two specific truths about this issue that we know to be absolute: China’s leader remains undemocratically elected, and he is greatly concerned with protecting his political position.