The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China has suggested removing term limits for the President and Vice-President of the People's Republic of China. The immediate implication is that President Xi Jinping could conceivably continue for a third term or more in office.
However, the more important one is that this sets a precedent for doing away with the norm of a two-term limit developed over the past couple of decades for the CPC General Secretary – the most powerful position Xi holds.
This development then appears to confirm long-standing speculation that Xi was aiming to carry on in power at the next CPC National Congress in 2022.
Other amendments to the PRC constitution being mooted by the CPC also confirm the possibility. One such is the addition of ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ in the PRC Constitution. In this case, this is a foregone conclusion since Xi Jinping Thought was already included in the CPC constitution at the 19th Party National Congress last October.
To understand what exactly has happened and how, Indians need only remember how their own bureaucrats bend the rules or create new ones at will, if necessary - to push their own aggrandizement while in office or to comfortable post-retirement sinecures.
Like the Indian babu – and CPC cadre are essentially bureaucrat-politicians – Xi and the CPC justify these moves in the name of ‘efficiency’, ‘expertise’, ‘capability’, even ‘merit’ and ‘respect for the Constitution’.
Note, for instance, that the state-run Xinhua News Agency had quoted Xi – only a few hours before news of the proposed changes to the PRC Constitution was announced – as saying that ‘No organization or individual has the power to overstep the Constitution or the law’.
Driving home this point even more sharply is a Global Times editorial that declares brazenly, ‘We are living in a changing and sophisticated era where individuals have limited horizon and capability’. Somehow the point about one individual being empowered at the expense of 1.3 billion others has been missed.
In fact, there is a clear provision in one of the proposed amendments that the director of the national supervisory commission – a new state organ that is coming into being in the PRC - shall serve no more than two consecutive terms. Why are there term limits for one state official and not the Chinese President and Vice-President?
This blindness to irony or hypocrisy and fundamentally paternalist and non-democratic attitude is unsurprising in societies and polities, which are essentially feudal in nature and/or are used to strong-man/centralised rule such as China or India.
Weakness not Strength
Where once, the CPC thought it could learn from the outside world and control the consequences at the same time or at least that the consequences would not threaten fundamentally threaten its own existence, today the measures undertaken by Xi suggest that such confidence no longer exists.
From the heavy-handed anti-corruption campaign to the ever increasing number of directives and instructions to universities, the media and Party cadre about ideological red lines and the constant drumbeat of state-driven propaganda and adulation of Xi to the extreme surveillance measures used against its own citizens, the Party looks less like the ruling party that it is and more like it is trying to stave off some imminent crisis.
Despite the restrictions on their freedom of expression meanwhile, Chinese citizens have found ways and means to work around censorship using technology as well as their own sarcasm and wit and the extraordinary malleability of the Chinese language itself to make their point.
For instance one image that has gone viral on Chinese social media is of Winnie the Pooh hugging a huge pot of honey and saying in Chinese, ‘Find the thing you love and stick with it’. References to Winnie the Pooh were banned on Chinese social media in the run-up to the 19th Party Congress because it was used to refer to Xi obliquely and the implication of the latest image too is clear.
The very fact that the CPC under Xi finds it necessary to declare the infallibility of the Party and to enshrine it in the PRC constitution – another proposed amendment is the inclusion of the statement ‘the leadership of the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics’ – suggests a lack of confidence within the Party about both its role and capability in holding both itself and the country together.
This is not to say that the China is falling apart as many Indian strategic analysts appear to hope for but that China’s internal political dynamics deserve greater attention in India for more objective assessments of China’s foreign policy goals and intentions.
The proposed amendments to the PRC constitution and the apparent centralization of power in Xi’s hands point to a fundamental weakness of institutions in China. No rising power can afford to hollow out its own institutions and hand over power to one single individual howsoever brilliant or capable.
The more China sees a centralization of power in an individual or even a coterie of individuals, the less likely it will have the required flexibility to deal with either its internal problems or its external challenges.This, by the way, is as true of democracies as it is of authoritarian states. Indeed, India’s own experiences since Independence should be instructive.
The author is a senior researcher at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. He tweets @jabinjacobt and blogs at www.indiandchina.com. Views are personal.