THE PARTY’S PROPOSAL to scrap the clause in the state constitution that limits the presidency to two five-year terms has caused more of a popular backlash, at least among those online, than the Party might have been expecting if the hurried after-the-fact propaganda blitz is any measure.
But then Party officials might have been blind to their biases. It is second nature to them that paramount power resides in Xi Jinping’s post of Party general secretary, not the presidency, regardless of where the rest of the world focuses its attention.
The constitution frames the president’s powers and duties expressly in terms of “in pursuance of the decisions of the National People’s Congress and its Standing Committee”, both firmly under the Party’s sway with the Party under the General Secretary’s. China’s presidency does not have the independent executive authority of, say, the president of the United States.
Xi has already consolidated that sort of authority to himself, and more. As Party general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission as well as president, he is head of the Party, military and state.
He has been designated the country’s core leader. His Thought is enshrined in the Party constitution, making a challenge to him a challenge to the Party, and since his ascendence to power in 2013, control over national security and the economy has fallen directly under him as head of the new bodies overseeing those two areas, the National Security Commission and the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms.
Neither the general secretary nor the chairman of the Central Military Commission is term-limited, so Xi would be able to continue in both roles, effectively running China, for as long as he wished or could keep the jobs.
Last year, Xi set himself up to continue as leader of the Party for another term by failing to appoint a clear successor at the five-yearly Party Congress. The latest proposal is merely a bit of bureaucratic tidying up as much as anything, putting the terms of the presidency in alignment with the other two posts in the ‘trinity’ that forms the apex of power.
Xi could have installed a figurehead president to succeed him without significantly diminishing his power, though it would have deprived him of the international spotlight that he appears to enjoy as the face of China and the international platform he needs to advance his vision of China in the world.
Not doing so also sends twin messages: internally, that he is no lame duck, and will not be for the foreseeable future; and externally, that China has strong and stable leadership, even if that cannot be said these days for many democracies.
We should also note that abolishing presidential term limits is not the only change being proposed. A more consequential one, to this Bystander’s mind, is writing the Party’s leading role into the constitution.