China claims move to scrap presidential term limit has wide support

Senior official tells lawmakers there was an ‘overwhelming appeal’ from the Communist Party and the public to revise the constitution

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 March, 2018, 11:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 March, 2018, 11:47pm

China sought to justify its controversial plan to allow President Xi Jinping to rule without term limits at the opening of its legislature on Monday, citing an “overwhelming appeal” from the party and the public to do so.

The proposal to remove the presidential term limit from the constitution has dominated global discussions about China since it was announced last month, sparking fears of a dangerous return to one-man rule. It has also drawn fierce criticism from intellectuals and business elites at home, despite heavy censorship on social media and a crackdown on dissent.

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Speaking on Monday to about 3,000 lawmakers who are widely expected to approve the change in a vote on Sunday, a senior official with the National People’s Congress defended the move, claiming it was widely supported by party cadres and the public.

“During consultations and surveys at the grass-roots level, many regions, departments and members of the party and the public have unanimously called for the rules on presidential term limits in the constitution to be revised,” said Wang Chen, secretary general of the NPC, without saying which regions or departments.

“During the party’s seventh plenum and 19th congress [in October], such calls were also loud among delegates who attended those meetings,” he added.

In China, the president is a largely ceremonial title and the real power rests with the other two offices a top leader holds – Xi is also chief of both the party and the military. But the president is the only one with a formal limit of two terms – introduced by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1982 to prevent another lifelong dictatorship after Mao Zedong’s tumultuous rule.

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Wang said proponents of the repeal suggested removing the limit would put the presidency on a par with the other two positions, which would help to protect the authority of the party’s top leadership with Xi at its “core” and improve the leadership system – a line echoing an article in party mouthpiece People’s Daily on Thursday and a government spokesperson’s remarks on Sunday.

He also said that the team tasked with amending the constitution had sought opinions from a wide range of groups – from officials and party elders to non-party members and academics – since November.

But observers were not convinced.

“It’s really hard for me to buy into that,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre.

“If it would be the case that a wide number of people were being consulted, I’d imagine there would be many leaks – people would leak that to international media,” he said.

Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, said Wang’s claim that the proposal had overwhelming support could be a veneer.

“It seems a highly tactical move, and one where those who were likely to be supportive were selected and recruited into the proposed change, creating a sense of consensus, and those likely to oppose it were kept out of the loop,” he said.

It is almost impossible to precisely gauge genuine public opinion on the extension of Xi’s rule, with state media strictly controlled by the government and the internet diligently scoured by censors for any comment that harbours explicit criticism or veiled mockery.

Well-educated urbanites took to social media to express their thinly veiled disaffection, but their sarcastic posts were swiftly met with blanket censorship. In the country’s vast rural backwaters, however, Xi seems to enjoy more support among the less privileged thanks to his popular war on graft and poverty.

It is also hard to measure the level of real support for the idea within the party, given Xi’s unchallenged authority and his ferocious anti-corruption campaign to crush disloyalty and dissent in the ranks, said Pan Chengxin, professor of Chinese foreign policy and politics at Deakin University in Australia.

“The party machine might have some kind of internal mechanism to sound out these kinds of ideas, but in any case, the opposition ... would’ve been silenced because of the anti-corruption campaign,” he said.

“Even if there are significant disagreements, probably they will not share this kind of dissent.”

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Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington, said there were bound to be pockets of opposition among party elders and aspiring leaders, but he believed Xi had amassed enough support to push the changes through.

“One cannot please everyone but Xi would not have pursued the changes had he not sensed that the mainstream of the party, and by extension the majority of Chinese, is genuinely behind him,” he said.

“Xi capitalised on a public sentiment that China, certainly compared with other countries, is on an upward momentum and that the momentum should not be stopped due to bureaucratic constraints.”

This will be the first time in 14 years that China has amended its constitution. Apart from scrapping the limits on the presidency and vice-presidency, the proposal also includes an amendment to set up a new anti-graft agency that will extend the powers of the party’s graft watchdog to cover all state employees. Xi’s political theory will also be added, along with that of his predecessor Hu Jintao.

Wang said the move to end the term limits was necessary given that China had entered “a new era”, with new requirements for the country’s development.

Xi heralded the dawn of China’s “new era” at the party congress in October, saying it would see the nation pursue its great “rejuvenation” and move closer to the global centre stage.

Wang also said that upholding the party’s leadership was the top principle behind amending the constitution.

“The centralised and unified leadership [at the very top] of the party ... has been adhered to throughout the whole process of the constitutional amendment to ensure [it is heading] in the correct political direction,” he said.

Additional reporting by Shi Jiangtao and Sarah Zheng