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China to Discuss Constitutional Amendments, But How Far Will Xi Jinping Go?

FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping gestures during the closing ceremony for the 19th Party Congress held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Oct. 24, 2017.

A group of top Chinese Communist Party leaders is meeting in Beijing to discuss amendments to the country’s constitution, but so far few details have been made public. Analysts said the two-day meeting, which ends Friday, is likely to further cement Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s grip on power in the party state.

The last time, China amended its constitution was in 2004, and like that revision, this meeting is likely to tailor the document to the current leadership’s ideological agenda. Whether or not the changes will focus on ways to benefit the Chinese public is unclear.

Of those academics we interviewed in China, some were unwilling to comment, fearing the possible retribution they could face if they said anything negative about the changes.

State media reports about the Central Committee meeting have been vague and when dates for the meeting were announced late last month, the official Xinhua news agency said the main agenda of the gathering would be to “discuss proposals about amending the constitution.”

The report did not provide any further details about just what proposals the 200-member body might discuss. It did, however, highlight the anti-corruption drive and the need to continue to ensure strict governance of the party.

That is a signal some analysts said that one key focus of the meeting might be on efforts to establish a new even more powerful anti-corruption agency - National Supervision Commission.

All proposals that are raised during the second plenary meeting of the 19th CCP Central Committee will receive final approval when the party’s rubber-stamp legislature meets in early March. During those meetings, a controversial National Supervision Law is expected to be passed, notes Hong Kong-based China political analyst Willy Lam. That law lays the groundwork for the establishment of the National Supervision Commission.

“This is a new nationwide institution, so most likely the rationale for setting up such a National Supervision Commission will be spelled out in the constitution,” Lam said.

The National Supervision Law and the commission it aims to establish has been a point of sharp controversy among some legal scholars here in China. One key concern is a lack of supervision and checks and balances over the new anti-corruption agency.

In an earlier opinion piece in the respected financial magazine Caixin, prominent legal scholar Chen Guangzhong gave a long list of concerns about the law and commission. That list included a call for the law to pledge to respect human rights and that the supervision commission’s independent power be consistent with those in the constitution.

Chen also noted concern that the drafting process for the National Supervision Law did not include the National People’s Congress or all relevant state agencies and instead was led by the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection – the party’s anti-corruption body.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s massive anti-corruption drive has already seen more than 1.5 million officials investigated and the establishment of the commission is expected to expand the party’s anti-corruption powers to investigate at all levels of government, including at state-owned enterprises.

Analysts said amendments to the constitution are likely to also include political ideological changes as well. The phrase “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” is likely to be added to the constitution, as was done with the party constitution late last year.

During the 19th Party Congress in October, Xi had his thought and name added to the party’s constitution. That move, while seemingly symbolic, put Xi on par with former Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong. Adding his name and thought to China’s constitution while still in office is something that no other communist leader has done since Mao Zedong.

“In addition to the ideals of the 19th party congress, there are other elements of the constitution that are unreasonable, but we’ll have to wait and see whether those things will be changed,” said Gan Chaoying, an associate professor at Peking University’s law school.

There is also speculation that Xi could use the opportunity to amend Article 79 of the constitution, which states the president and vice president of China can only serve two consecutive terms in office. Xi was approved to begin his second five-year term late last year and is now slated to step down in 2022. But many believe he wants to stay in office longer.

David Zweig, a political science professor at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said he doesn’t believe Xi has the authority yet to pull such a controversial move off.

“I think that he still probably needs to prove to his colleagues that he actually can deliver on many fronts before they are going to give him a third term,” Zweig said.

Willy Lam said it is doubtful Xi would want to pass that amendment now, given that he has already accumulated so much power. But, the possibility certainly exists, he added.

“Xi Jinping is a very power-hungry egoistic leader, so it is possible that he might choose to do it during this constitutional reform,” Lam said. However, “given the fact that it would be abnormal to revise the Constitution again within a few years’ time, he might do it in one go.”

Any of the constitutional amendments that are proposed this week will first need the support of the party’s 200-member strong Central Committee and support from two-thirds of the members of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC).

Appointments to top government positions will also be decided during the meetings, but announcements are typically not made official until China’s NPC in March. Some reports have suggested that Wang Qishan, the former head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection may be tipped to serve as vice president.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post has quoted sources who suggest that in addition to being chosen to serve as vice president, Wang may also be allowed to sit in on meetings of the top Politburo Standing Committee.

“If it happens, it would be a remarkable bow to the formality of Chinese and Asian politics,” said David Zweig. “This would put him in the meetings, though probably no vote, though he would be in there and have a right to speak.”

By keeping Wang around, analysts said Xi Jinping could have the former graft-buster continue to focus on the anti-corruption drive. His continued presence would likely be welcomed by foreigners and the foreign business community, they said.