BY ITAMAR WAKSMAN
When Xi Jinping was first selected to lead China in 2012, he was originally seen as an uninspiring leader, acceptable to competing factions within the party, and a tepid reformer. Looking back, few expected Xi to so ardently seek to dominate Chinese politics as he does today. Beginning with his anti-corruption campaign, which brought him massive popular support while allowing him to eliminate his political enemies, to the decision to enshrine his “thought” in the Chinese Constitution during the 19th National Party Congress, Xi has been able to build his political power to a point unseen since arguably the Mao era. From Jan. 18 to Jan. 19, the 2nd Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Committee approved a number of proposed constitutional reforms, quietly releasing the proposals on state media on Feb. 25. Among the reforms, which include the enshrinement of “socialist rule of law” in Chinese society, come two proposals which could alter the Chinese political system: the creation of a national, corruption-focused National Supervision Committee (NSC) as well as the elimination of term limits for the positions of President and Vice President. While the former has created little stir, the latter has sparked outrage and anxiety throughout both China and the rest of the world. China watchers, concerned citizens, and government officials are all finding themselves asking if China is moving from an era of stable, party-centered rule by consensus to one based on the dictatorship of an individual.
After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the CCP knew it had to reform in order to maintain its control over the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The estimated 20 million deaths caused by the Great Leap Forward and the unimaginable social and cultural destruction during the Cultural Revolution shook the very foundation of the Party’s legitimacy. Chinese leaders understood that leaving the nation’s power in the hands of one individual left it susceptible to dire mistakes which could ultimately threaten the very existence of the CCP. Deng Xiaoping, who took power after Mao’s death, knew that reform, both economic and political, was the only way to maintain the supremacy of the Party. In 1978, Deng welcomed a new era of reform and opening up to the world. Equally as important, the Party instituted a number of new rules and norms governing retirement age and career trajectories in an effort to ensure its adaptability to changing circumstances. In 1982, the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s legislature, approved a reform of the constitution that limited the number of terms of the President and Vice President hoping to curb the prospect of a limitless paramount leader. The new constitutional proposals threaten to alter decades of established norms.
In many respects, the anxiety over the removal of the term limits is overstated. The position of President in the PRC is a mostly ceremonial position, with the parallel positions of General Secretary of the CCP and Head of the Central Military Commission (CMC), which controls China’s military, holding far more importance. But the move does signal that Xi is willing to not only stretch the limits of the Chinese state, as he demonstrated by the lack of a potential successor being elevated to the Politburo during last year’s party congress, but completely change the rules to his personal benefit. Xi may be testing the waters for even more drastic future changes, like staying on as General Secretary or Head of the CMC, the latter having precedence during the Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin eras. Regardless of what the future holds, few continue to believe that Xi is not eyeing continued control over the Party and the state in an effort to see through his vision of turning China into a moderately prosperous society by 2021 and a “fully developed, rich, and powerful“ nation by 2049.
Equally as alarming towards the concept of an adaptable CCP is the newly proposed National Supervision Committee. Blending the power of the party and the state, this new institution would hold similar powers as the current Central Commission on Discipline and Inspection (CCDI), a party body trusted with investigating corruption and the chief tool of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Wang Qishan, one of Xi’s closest allies, stepped down from his leadership of the CCDI and the Politburo after last year’s Congress due to his age, a move that was heralded as Xi respecting Party rules and norms. Now, however, Wang is set to return to the political stage as a delegate to the NPC from Hunan province, with talk that he may soon be appointed Vice President. Never before has a party official stepped down from the party’s political structure and moved into the parallel state structure, but currently there are no official constitutional or party limits on this. With the creation of the NSC, Wang has the opportunity to return as leader of the anti-corruption campaign and Xi’s most important operative.
Chinese citizens were understandably shocked by the proposed term limits change. In the hours proceeding the news, WeChat and Weibo, China’s chief social media platforms, buzzed with talk over the direction of the country and memes, including a mock condom advertisement stating “I like how you’re always on top.” Chinese censors were quick to respond, banning words such as “Animal Farm” (the George Orwell novel), “emigrate”, and the letter “n” as Chinese netizens attempted to estimate the number of Xi’s potential terms in office. Even known individuals within China openly rebuked the proposals, most famously by former editor Li Datong in an open letter posted on WeChat. The response from Chinese society reinforced the fact that the Chinese people are aware of their social contract with the CCP. After the Mao era and the end of the Party’s reliance on Marxist-Leninist ideology, the Chinese people allowed the continued supremacy of the party in exchange for economic development and the wealth it brought. As of now, the party has held up its end of the bargain, partially due to its ability to self-regulate and adapt or at least appear to do so. But the prospect of a multi-decade dictatorship threatens to change the outstanding equilibrium.
Xi has recreated the CCP in his own image. His ability to hold on to power will rely on if he can complete the projects he promised during his first term, including the Belt and Road Initiative and the Chinese Dream, ensuring the continuity of “national rejuvenation.” A move like this is bound to further alarm the already on edge Chinese elites, who are wary of already five years of evading corruption allegations and having to hide their riches. If he cannot bring his grand ideas to fruition, he will have to lean more heavily on his already tight control of censorship, the media, and academia. China is at a pivotal moment in its national development and return to great power status. Only time will tell if something will disturb the image of strength emanating from Beijing.
The proposed constitutional changes were approved by the NPC on March 11 with 2,959 votes for, 2 against, and 3 abstentions.