What to watch for at China’s Two Sessions

All eyes will be on proposed constitutional changes that could pave the way for President Xi Jinping to retain power beyond 2023

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 March, 2018, 3:14pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 March, 2018, 9:11pm

During the annual parliamentary sessions in Beijing, which started on Saturday and cap China’s five-yearly political reshuffle, all eyes will be on proposed constitutional changes that could end presidential term limits, paving the way for Xi Jinping to stay in power beyond 2023. 

First term limits ... now Xi to shake up the state

While this controversial move with far-reaching implications plays out, a new cabinet and other top-level officials will be unveiled, sealing more than two weeks of meetings involving some 5,000 lawmakers and political advisers. 

The government is also expected to announce a major shake-up of ministries to meet new challenges and tighten the Communist Party’s grip on state affairs. 

The reshuffles are not limited to officials but include lawmakers and advisers, reflecting the country’s changing political landscape. 

Here are some key things to watch for this year:

 

Dates 

The annual parliamentary sessions that fall at the start of China’s five-yearly political cycle typically run long, possibly going beyond mid-March. 

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Roughly 2,000 advisers will meet from Saturday until March 15. They will be joined by national legislators on Monday, when Premier Li Keqiang will present the government’s annual report and reveal its budget plan.

The legislators are expected to wrap up their meeting a few days after the advisers. By then, major appointments and the reorganisation of government departments would be formally confirmed. 

 

People 

The reshuffle will affect a wide range of players but two major figures to look out for are:

- Wang Qishan, the formidable anticorruption tsar of Xi’s first term and the president’s close ally, is expected to make a comeback after stepping down from the party’s innermost Politburo Standing Committee in October. 

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There are at least two signs that Wang is likely to become a vice-president: he kept his legislator’s seat at the latest NPC session and was absent from the list of retired party leaders sent Lunar New Year greetings by Xi. 

It remains to be seen what this development would mean for Beijing’s new thinking towards its external policies regime. 

- Liu He, who has been busy this week in the US amid growing trade tension with Washington, is expected to be one of the four vice-premiers. 

His status as Xi’s “very important” economic adviser could be taken to a new level if Liu is tasked not only with overseeing the financial sector but also succeeding Zhou Xiaochuan as the next central bank governor, a job last doubled by a vice-premier – Zhu Rongji – in the 1990s. 

Changes 

The NPC is expected enact the most drastic and sweeping political changes the country has seen in the past decade, ranging from repealing presidential term limits, to creating a new anti-graft super body and overhauling the ministries under the State Council.

Although the presidency is the least important of a Chinese leader’s “trinity” of titles – real power comes with the top military and party jobs – it is the only position with formal term limits. Removing those limits from the constitution would potentially allow Xi to stay in power beyond 2023.

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The expected repeal has ignited debate inside and outside China, raising concerns that China could veer back to one-man rule and dismantle the peaceful and orderly succession of power in place since the 1990s. The continuity could also have far-reaching implications for China’s economic and foreign policy.

The NPC is also expected to approve the creation of the National Supervision Commission. The overarching body will have extensive power to investigate and detain all state employees without allowing them access to lawyers, a move that has prompted fierce criticism from legal experts. The new commission will enjoy a ranking close to that of the cabinet and higher than those of the top court and top prosecutor’s office.

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For the cabinet shake-up, the party has not specifically discussed which government departments will be merged or reorganised; but at its meeting in late February it hinted that the aim was to foster market efficiency, better manage natural resources and the environment, as well as improve public services to meet changing demands.

Sources have said that in at least one restructuring move, China’s insurance regulator will merge with its banking regulator.

To make some of these changes a reality, the legislature will have to amend the state constitution for the first time in 14 years.

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The amendments are widely expected to be rubber-stamped by the NPC, as they only require approval from over two-thirds of the delegates. But it would be worth watching to see how close to unanimity the vote will go, with any vote of abstention or objection speaking volumes about disaffection within the establishment towards the proposals.

In 1982, when presidential term limits were added to the constitution, there were 2,963 approvals, 10 objections and 17 abstentions.

Xi’s eponymous political theory – “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” – will also be added to the constitution’s preamble, following its addition to the party’s charter at the five-yearly autumn congress.