by Thomas J. Shattuck
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) opened its 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) on March 5, 2018, where nearly 3,000 members gather to vote on amendments to the constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and other legislative matters. The NPC is considered a rubber stamp for the party leadership because “no” votes are rarely cast.
What makes this NPC so much more important than previous ones is that several proposed amendments will change Chinese politics for many years to come.
In February 2018, the CCP released a list of proposed amendments. The list is long, and not all items are worth highlighting. But the major proposed changes are all about Xi Jinping and his vision for China. The two most controversial amendments are the elimination of the two-term limit to the office of the president and the inclusion of supervisory commissions as an official state organ. These two measures will grant Xi the ability to rule for life if he so chooses as well as to continue to oust competition under the guise of an anti-corruption movement.
Even though Xi recently said, “No organization or individual has the power to overstep the Constitution or the law,” he omitted the qualification that one individual—Xi himself—has the power to railroad through amendments to the constitution after years of removing rivals and installing allies into key posts.
Through sheer force of will, Xi has made himself the “It Man” in China. After years of institutionalized succession and an emphasis on collective leadership, Xi has hollowed out these once-sacred mechanisms in order to keep himself in power indefinitely.
No matter what the future Xi holds for China, the country is squarely in Xi’s hands for better or worse. His name and political thought, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era,” will, in fact, be added to the constitution along with Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory, demonstrating his high place in Chinese politics.
THE HOLLOWING OF CHINESE LEADERSHIP
In an effort to never repeat the destructive years of Mao Zedong’s rule, in 1982, Deng Xiaoping—a member of the Chinese leadership who found himself on the wrong side of Mao’s favor and was purged before staging a comeback—had the PRC constitution amended to limit the presidency and vice presidency to a maximum of two terms. After the harrowing effects of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, Deng believed that installing term limits would prevent the catastrophe of one-man rule.
Deng warned in 1980, “It is not good to have an over-concentration of power. It hinders the practice of socialist democracy and of the Party’s democratic centralism, impedes the progress of socialist construction and prevents us from taking full advantage of collective wisdom. Over-concentration of power is liable to give rise to arbitrary rule by individuals at the expense of collective leadership, and it is an important cause of bureaucracy under the present circumstances.” He wrote that in response to the effects of Maoist rule, but it now applies to what Xi is attempting to do in China. Deng also was weary of having only aged men serving at the top and its effect on the vitality of the party.
Before Xi, the president of the PRC stepped down after his two-term limit. Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin each served two terms, and Yang Shangkun and Li Xiannian each only served one term. Five years from now, Xi Jinping will almost certainly receive his third term.
The general party talking point to foreign criticism over this authoritarian encroachment has been that Xi won’t serve for life; he will likely serve a third or fourth term, taking his rule into 2033. These additional terms have particular significance for Xi because he created two-stage development plan for the PRC. In the first stage, from 2020-2035, China’s “socialist modernization” will be “realized,” and in the second stage, from 2035-2050, China will become “a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful.”
Serving four terms will allow Xi to steer the PRC almost to the end of the first stage of development. According to an anonymous Chinese scholar cited in the Global Times, in order to fulfill this plan successfully, “China needs a centralized and unified leadership; otherwise the decentralization of authority will impact realization of the great goal.” The ghost of Deng would beg to differ and argue that realizing this goal is only possible through strong collective leadership, not through one man alone.
ANTI-CORRUPTION CAMPAIGN’S NEW MANDATE
The other major amendment worth discussing is the addition of supervisory commissions into the state organs of the constitution. Supervisory commission is the official name for the anti-graft and corruption agencies that have made Xi so popular domestically.
In theory, the anti-corruption campaign has removed politicians and military officials who were seeking to benefit their own wallets through their high positions. High-profile examples of politicians getting ousted include former party secretary of Kunming in the Yunnan Province Gao Jinsong, former head of the CCP’s Cyberspace Administration Lu Wei, former party secretary of Chongqing Sun Zhengcai, and former People’s Liberation Army General Xu Caihou were all ousted under this campaign.
The amendment states, “Supervisory organs will be listed together with administrative, judicial and procuratorial organs of the State, all of which are created by the people’s congresses to which they are responsible and by which they are supervised,” essentially elevating it to the highest levels of importance.
Another important part of the amendment addresses the “independence” of the commissions: “The supervisory commissions will independently exercise their power of supervision and not be subject to interference by any administrative organ, public organization or individual, said the proposal.” Supposedly, no one outside of the commission can tamper with the authority of the commissions or force investigations on to certain individuals.
It will be interesting to see how many potential rivals of Xi will be targeted under the soon-to-be constitutionally mandated organization. Such targeting would only be a coincidence.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
According to an anonymous source, Xi released the amendments before a three-day session when the amendments would be debated. “The manner in which Xi is forcing through the changes is drastic, it was not consensus-based. . . . It was forceful and may offend many people, not just liberals.” Xi’s power move forced the CCP’s hand into accepting them because rejecting such a massive proposal would cause Xi to lose an immense amount of face both domestically and globally.
The important question now is what effect will Xi’s blank check on time have on his actions. The clock is no longer ticking for Xi to feel pressure into achieving all of his expansive goals in only 10 years. He now has 15 or 20 years, or perhaps even longer depending on his health to modernize China and develop Chinese socialism as discussed above; to carry out the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s expansive international development program spanning the Eurasian continent; and to bring Taiwan back “home.” Other the other hand, the extra time will increase pressure on Xi to solidify his legacy as China’s paramount leader. Failure is not an option for Xi.
Right now, what the immediate and long-term future holds for China is too murky to make any definitive predictions, but what is clear is that Xi has positioned himself as China’s It Man—for better or worse.
*Thomas J. Shattuck is the editor of Geopoliticus: The FPRI Blog and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.