By Srikanth Kondapalli*
On 26 February, the Central Committee of the ruling Communist Party of China (CCP) proposed a series of constitutional amendments including changing the two-term norm for the president and vice-president posts. No specific term period was mentioned in the proposals – suggesting numerous terms or even for life – which are expected to be ratified by the country’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), shortly.
Ever since the 19th party congress took place in October 2017, speculation was rife about the terms of the central leaders in China. This is because out of the seven most powerful politburo standing committee members, according to the party norm of compulsory retirement after attaining 68 years of age, 6 out of the 7 (that is, except Zhao Leji) will have to retire at the next party congress in 2021, including Xi Jinping.
This is seen as a deliberate attempt by Xi Jinping and others to create uncertainty in the ruling party succession saga which since the late Deng Xiaoping has been tailor-made to succession events. Thus Deng selected Jiang Zemin due to his role in the suppression of students, workers and peasants in Shanghai in the tumultuous events of 1989. Jiang ruled from 1989 to 2002. Likewise, Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, ruled China from 2002-12 due to his role in Tibet following the Nobel Prize for the Dalai Lama.
However, the current amendments are for the posts of president and vice-president – the top functionaries of the state and not the party – thus leaving scope for intense bargaining and politicking in the next four years in the party echelons.
For, in China, supreme power rests with the general secretary of the Communist Party, but more precisely with the chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Many presidents of China before – Xiannian or Yang Shangkun – were considered powerless or even rubber-stamps, and in the later years of his leadership, Deng Xiaoping was in fact only the head of billiards association! Many general secretaries of the party were also powerless – including Deng Xiaoping himself in the 1950s under Mao Zedong’s leadership, or Zhao Ziyang during the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 under Deng. Deng even removed the party secretary Zhao for sympathising with the students in Tiananmen.
The most powerful position in China has been the Chairman of the CMC of the party, although a similar and parallel post exists under the state (People’s Republic of China). Mao was chairman of the CMC from 1935 till his death in 1976, followed for a brief period by Hua Guofeng from 1976 to 1978, when Deng took the reins till 1989. Jiang chaired the party CMC till 2004 (two years extra), while Hu gave up this position by 2012 to Xi. Xi today is the president of the state but most importantly the chair of the CMC of the party.
While Mao emphasised the party more (and at times the masses – the Red Guards), Deng began the process of guojiahua (strengthening state institutions) to counter lawlessness during the Gang of Four period of the 1970s. Deng also abolished life terms for the party functionaries, which the current amendment in the NPC intends to institutionalise for the state functionaries.
Overall, the current amendments – although they pertain to state (PRC) functionaries such as the president and vice-president – in the run-up to the 20th party congress four years down the line could provide precedent for Xi to promote himself for a third (or potentially more terms) in the powerful party positions. This is the significance of the current amendments. With these measures, Xi is likely to further centralise powers.
Secondly, while Deng argued for accountability as the Gang of Four usurped state and party functions, Xi appears to be moving away from Deng, although the political disturbances like in the 1970s do not exist in China today. Of course, Xi’s anti-corruption drive in the party and the state has rattled the rank and file. Xi suggests this drive, which was a party directive at the 4th plenum of the 18th party congress in 2014, as essential in reinforcing the rule of law.
Thirdly, the amendments to the state functionaries could impact China’s long-term economic diversification and consolidation of the “medium high” economic growth rates as set by the 19th party congress. It could also restructure the economy for domestic consumption and hence sustainable development. The speculation about Liu He for the posts of vice-premier indicates this direction.
Fourthly, while the current amendments have a more domestic political flavour, continuity of state (and later, party) terms for Xi and others are likely to lead to an uninterrupted implementation of the party agenda as set in October 2017. Xi laid down a long-term road map for 2050 to make China occupy the “centre stage” in global and regional issues and realise “socialist modernisation”. More terms for Xi could put the party/state in this direction without hiccups. A more assertive Xi – as reflected in the militarisation of the South China Sea, forays into Senkaku Islands held by Japan, or on the border with India – could as well resolve these issues in favour of China. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was incorporated in the party constitution in October, and whose footprint expands to Europe, Asia and Africa, could also be consolidated further.
All in all, the proposed amendments to the top state functionaries are likely to gather storm in China’s politics in the coming years, thus further consolidating Xi’s power. This is also likely to increase the chasm between political factions domestically, and amplify China’s frictions abroad.
* Srikanth Kondapalli
Professor, Chinese Studies, JNU, & Distinguished Fellow, IPCS