China says it plans to scrap a two-term limit for the country’s president and vice president, a move that could allow Chinese leader Xi Jinping to stay in office indefinitely.
Expectations that Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, was considering staying in office for more than the typical 10 years has been building for some time now. But the outline of amendment proposals announced by state media Sunday, including Article 79, confirmed those changes could soon become a reality.
Xi, 64, has been China’s president since 2013 and is expected to be formally re-elected at a meeting of the country’s largely rubber-stamp legislature early next month. The proposed constitutional amendments will also be voted on at the meeting of the National People’s Congress that begins March 5.
Zhang Lifan, a historian and political commentator says the move paves the way for Xi to stay in office well beyond his second five-year term, how long is uncertain.
“In principle, his term in office can now be extended indefinitely,” Zhang said adding that if Xi wants, he could stay office until 2050 and exceed the term of Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe.
Leader for life
The possibility of Xi becoming China’s leader for life has been increasingly clear since he outlined a major blueprint for the country’s development during a communist party congress late last year. That plan aims to turn China into a “great modern socialist country” by 2050 and lasts 30 years.
Removing the term limit does not mean that Xi could stay on that long, but already state media have quoted analysts as saying that it does make sense for him to stay at least until the end of the first 15-year period of the 30 year plan.
In a report from the party-backed Global Times, Su Wei, a professor at the party school of the Chongching Municipal Committee, called the announcement a “significant decision” that will help the party achieve its “historic mission.”
“Especially in the period from 2020 to 2035, which is a crucial stage for China to basically realize socialist modernization, China and the CPC need a stable, strong and consistent leadership,” Su was quoted as saying.
But while other analysts agree that is one a reason for Xi to stay around, there are also other reasons why he may need more time. Some note Xi's sweeping anti-corruption drive has made him many enemies and if he stepped down in five years, he would be at risk.
Results slow to come
Others highlight the lackluster progress of his reform campaign over the past five years, noting that too is a reason why he may need more time.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, says the argument is that what China needs is stable, centralized leadership to make long-term plans for the country at a time when social unrest and social pressure is increasing.
“So, what they are trying to pre-empt is any social reaction against the economic difficulties, which society has been facing for some time. With the slowdown of the economy, the increase in the divide among society, equality and so on," he says.
When China’s Central Committee met in January to discuss constitutional reforms, details about writing Xi’s political thought into the country’s constitution and establishing a new and powerful anti-corruption agency called the National Supervision Commission were clear. There was no mention, however, of the clause that limits the president and vice president to two terms.
“It looks like Xi Jinping wanted to tighten the process and speed up its adoption,” Cabestan says. “He has the means to do that now and if he waits, he may feel that it may be harder to get these reforms approved by the party leadership.”
The sudden announcement comes just as the Communist Party’s Central Committee is set to begin a rare third plenum meeting on Monday.
But analysts say the proposal is not going to go forward without sparking some controversy. There is growing concern that Xi could be leaning toward following in the footsteps of China’s former leader Mao Zedong.
Since Xi has risen to power there have been increasing controls over society and even powerful elite business.
Already online, it was clear that censors are rushing to keep up with silencing any discussion of the move.
According to Freeweibo.com, the top five censored topics on China’s Weibo social media app, which is similar to Twitter, are all related to the proposed amendment to the president’s term in office.
Some comments could still be found on Weibo, even though many were being removed.
In one posting a user said, “Since the constitution is a law that touches on the human rights of all the people of China, as a citizen do I have any right to vote on a certain party’s proposal to amend the constitution?”
In a response that post, one user wrote, “If you can get out of the country go now, skies are changing.” Another quipped, “There is no human rights, let alone any right to vote.”