Beyond term limits: China’s new constitution is written for a nation on the rise

Tian Feilong says the latest amendments, of which the controversial removal of presidential term limits was one, show a newly confident nation following its own path

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 March, 2018, 12:59pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 March, 2018, 3:58pm

China recently revised its constitution, as it has done several times in the past, but the extent of the changes this time were greater than before, and the impact will be too.

Legislators voted this month to include President Xi Jinping’s political doctrine, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, into the constitution, among other changes.

In sum, the amendments leave the framework of the 1982 constitution intact, but they project a self-confidence that was missing in the original. Thanks to its rapid economic growth and rising global clout, today’s China is confident of its own system, path, theory and culture.

Its self-identity has changed from a “follower” country in the late 1970s at the start of its reform journey, to a leading country today with an eye on national rejuvenation. By stepping up as a leading nation, China has two goals in mind: national renaissance, and a more active role in shaping a common destiny for the global community.

The revised constitution reflects the decisions taken at the 19th Communist Party congress last October. It also signals at least two key shifts in the thinking that informs the constitution.

First, while in the past China undertook domestic reforms with the view to “keep a low profile and bide its time”, now its reforms are also geared towards helping the nation fulfil its role on the global stage.

Second, the party’s leading role, which is affirmed in the preamble to the constitution, is now the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics. The party is a key part of the state system, forming a constitutional foundation for political reform that is aimed at integrating party and government functions.

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The removal of the presidential term limits also reverses China’s exploration for a power-sharing structure at the top, signalling an end to the efforts to separate party and state, which have been a goal of political reform since 1980.

Public attention has largely been focused on the controversial abolition of the term limits, but the significance of the changes as a whole has escaped many. The revised constitution in fact signals a changing of the times.

The 18th party congress in 2012 kick-started a series of intensive reforms that have put pressure on many Chinese institutions. As a result, the changes made to the constitution have been more drastic than in previous rounds. These groundbreaking changes have triggered many reactions, both at home and abroad.

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Since the 19th party congress, Western powers led by the US have concluded that China seeks to be a global power with the strategic intent to challenge the West’s leadership. In response, the US has initiated countermeasures reminiscent of a cold war, from launching geopolitical containment strategies to threatening a trade war. Strategic mistrust between China and the US has deepened.

At home, reformists who support China’s opening up and the political liberalisation initiated in the 1980s to separate party and state remain opposed to the constitutional amendments.

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For Chinese people across different social strata, a leader vested with supreme power is an object of both expectation and fear. They are concerned about whether the constitutional legitimacy of a future transfer of power would continue to be upheld, and whether top leaders could maintain their political integrity.

At heart, there is a fundamental difference in the Chinese and Western understanding of constitutional development. In China, the constitutional system has evolved over the years. It is neither a strictly socialist model, nor a classical Chinese political model that combines legalism and Confucianism. It has also not conformed with liberal reformers’ expectation of a democratic transition.

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This new constitution, which is informed by both ancient and modern Chinese history, will serve Beijing in its twofold mission to revitalise the nation and play a leading role on the global stage.

The government has several challenges on its hands. First, it must try to bridge the gap between this authoritarian new system of governance and the educated class’s expectations of democratic development.

China must put in place sufficient checks to prevent power abuse

Second, it must put in place sufficient checks to prevent power abuse, to fulfil China’s rule-of-law commitments to “put power in the cage of regulation”.

Third, in the China-US tussle for influence in this changing global order, China must encourage the development of sufficient mutual trust that the two powers do not fall into the Thucydides Trap.

Fourth, it must fashion a Chinese culture that is truly influential and use this soft power to enhance trust and understanding between China and the rest of the world.

A nation that has embraced the responsibility of national renaissance must confront these challenges, which bring both risks and trouble, but, if overcome, are also the stepping stones to glory.

Tian Feilong is an associate professor at Beihang University’s Law School in Beijing. This is translated from Chinese