Mo Zhixu, February 27, 2018
On February 26, China’s official news agency Xinhua published the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s Proposed Amendments to China’s constitution (Chinese). The Party proposed revising the clause “The term of office of the Chairman (国家主席) and Vice-Chairman of the People’s Republic of China is the same as that of the National People’s Congress, and they shall serve no more than two consecutive terms” to “The term of office of the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the People’s Republic of China is the same as that of the National People’s Congress.” During the Party’s 19th congress in November, 2017, no one in the new politburo standing committee appeared to be the potential successor of Xi Jinping, as Hu Jintao was to Jiang Zemin, and Xi Jinping was to Hu Jintao. People then already predicted that Xi Jinping would continue to stay in power after his term ends in five years, with the only unknown being: will he follow Deng Xiaoping’s example to hold onto power as the chairman of the Central Military Committee or/and the general secretary of the Party (the two positions have no term limit), or will he amend the constitutional term limit on the term of the chairman so that he will also keep the nominal position of the chairman?
Even though the proposed removal of term limit is only the dropping of the other shoe, it caused a huge stir. Since yesterday, one can sense a certain desperation in every chat group on WeChat; searches for “yi-min” (immigration) spiked, and people have been discussing which countries they can flee to.
There are complex reasons why such a constitutional change has jolted Chinese society, the most fundamental being that the two-term limit enshrined in the current Constitution, which was amended in 1982, is the political and economic mental setup of the Deng Xiaoping era. To dismantle it is to hit the reset button for a new era.
The two-term cap in the 1982 constitution was a result of Chinese leadership’s painful re-evaluation of the Cultural Revolution: a supreme leader who had life tenure had enough time to elevate his power to be worshiped by all others, and he had absolute power over the lives and deaths of others. Those who paid the highest price were the ones who once had occupied high positions. Abolishing life tenure and replacing it with a limited term would prevent the emergence of the likes of Mao. It was, in the first place, a self-protection measure for those in high power.
In practice, however, the term limit and the institution of collective leadership had a greater effect: to effectively curb the power of the number one leader. As China shifted its focus to economic development, China has been able to give a pragmatic or even reasonable appearance in its governance, even though the regime has remained a dictatorship. To political scientists who have observed China closely, such as professors Andrew Nathan and David Shambaugh, this appearance was an indication of the regime’s “resilience.”
Such an appearance has afforded average people an optimistic outlook of China’s future, while ensuring that foreign capital could trust the system. These have been the psychological fundamentals of China’s rapid economic growth over the past decades.
In China’s liberal discourse, the two-term cap has been regarded as a landmark of political reform, a manifestation of the Chinese communist party’s self-reinvention.
For a long time now, China’s emerging middle class has wanted to pursue change but has been equally scared of chaos: that is, they’re dissatisfied with China’s autocratic polity and hope that it reforms, yet simultaneously, as beneficiaries of the current arrangements they’re opposed to radical change. Their vested interests guide their psychological orientations, and make them more inclined to advocate gradual reform. To a great degree, China’s rapid social and economic development and transformation has taken place under remarkably stable political conditions. Aside from credit earned through the so-called ‘performance legitimacy,’ the CCP’s ability to adapt and reform has been widely accepted, and is a bedrock assumption of China’s political stability.
Gradual Reform — Gone With the Wind
For these reasons, the abolishment of the term limit, while first threatening those in power, strikes the strongest blow against the faith in China’s economic and political system. This is because for the last few years, Xi Jinping’s power has swollen enormously, vitiating the public’s belief in the basic rationality of communist rule. The cancellation of the term limit is the straw that will break the camel’s back: now, the leadership has returned to strongman rule and there are no limits to his power, and thus the appearance that it is a fundamentally pragmatic regime has also been crushed.
The explosion in people searching the phrase “immigration” is a perfect example of the psychological trauma of the latest news. The post-1989 period already saw a severe challenge to the narrative of Communist Party self-reform and adaptation; now, that narrative seems based merely on the reforms of the 1980s, and in particular the 1982 constitutional amendment which saw term limit implemented for state leadership posts.
Since he came to power, Xi Jinping has increased the suppression and control of society, and prospects of gradual reform are simply no longer on the table. The abolition of the term limit system would completely tear away the basis for claims about the CCP’s adaptability, and has turned all hopes for gradual reform based on this argument into a joke. This is equivalent to a death penalty for gradual reform, about as effective as the emergency cabinet established at the end of the Qing Dynasty to deal with the Xinhai Revolution.
Over the last few years, many people unhappy with Xi’s rule had pegged their hopes on Xi being disabled in a (fictitious) power struggle; while others had resigned themselves to wait until 2022 when he would hand over power. But Xi’s consolidation of power at the 19th Party Congress destroyed the former wish, and the elimination of term limit has burst the bubble of the latter.
Xi Jinping’s power and the political line he has pursued will now continue indefinitely. But more importantly, the basic assumptions about China’s politics and economy, about the future of Xi Jinping, and about the prospects of reform, have all been punctured by this development. There are now no immediate prospects for change. This is why what was such an unsurprising announcement has led to such universal shock and lamentation.
Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor of Chinese-language publications known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy. He currently lives in Guangzhou.
Translated from Chinese by China Change.
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