“Urgent: Communist Party of China proposes change of constitution [regarding] Chinese president’s term”. In a fashion typical of news agencies, the English-language service of the state-run Xinhua dropped the bombshell announcement in the early afternoon of February 25, adding that the party leadership proposed to remove from the constitution the expression that “president and vice-president shall serve no more than two consecutive terms”.
The brief report in English came nearly two hours ahead of the release of the full report in Chinese of the proposed changes to the constitution.
Its two sentences were immediately picked up by overseas news outlets and went viral on social media, with speculation focusing upon whether the proposed change was clearing the way for President Xi Jinping to rule for life.
But Xinhua is not a typical news agency. Carrying an official ranking equivalent to a cabinet ministry, it serves as the most authoritative source of the party leadership and it is the designated platform through which important documents and speeches are released. This means it must make sure its reports are politically correct above all else.
It has since transpired that some senior editors at Xinhua are facing disciplinary action, apparently because they jumped the gun and released the report purely for the sake of its news value.
The episode has not only illustrated the sensitivity of the proposed constitutional change, which will help Xi to tighten his grip on power.
More importantly, the episode – and particularly how public discussion of the proposed change has been so tightly controlled – portends trouble for China’s efforts to burnish its image as a responsible world power and heightens international concerns over Xi’s tightening grip and China’s future direction.
Long time readers of Xinhua, in both English and Chinese, will know that in the past Xinhua has periodically released reports of important policies and personnel changes in English often several hours ahead of the Chinese version, with editors picking the most newsy items for the Western audience. But this time, they may have misread the leadership, which apparently wanted to play down the decision. If so, this was wishful thinking by the leadership. Even if Xinhua had simply released the English version of the full report, which contained 21 proposed constitutional changes (the abolition of term limits was number 14), the overseas media still would have picked up and focused on the term limits issue. The impact would have been the same.
Maybe the leadership was incensed that because of Xinhua’s special status, the earlier release of the term limit change could be construed as something that the leadership wanted to highlight for the outside world.
Whatever the reasons, playing down what could be one of the most momentous changes in Chinese politics is counterproductive.
Over the past five years, China’s massive propaganda apparatus has tried every possible way to praise Xi and build a personality cult around him.
The party’s 19th congress in October gave Xi a second term as general secretary and approved the inclusion of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” in the party constitution. Of Xi’s trinity of leadership positions, his more powerful positions as the general party secretary and chairman of the central military commission have no term limits.
This has paved the way for the changes in the state constitution, which limits the presidency to two consecutive terms. The writing is now on the wall but originally analysts had expected the term limit change to take place much later in Xi’s second term.
According to an official explanation given to the deputies of the National People’s Congress last week, the decision to revise the state constitution was made by a politburo meeting chaired by Xi on September 29, even before the party’s 19th congress, which opened on October 18.
The explanation merely said the abolition of term limits on the presidency was made partly in response to calls from delegates to the 19th congress and a selected group of people consulted before the decision was made.
It said the change would help uphold authority and the unified command of the party leadership with Xi as its core, and was conducive to strengthening and improving the state leadership system.
But it did not explain how allowing Xi to rule indefinitely would benefit the country’s development.
On Wednesday, the NPC deputies and delegates to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) were supposed to discuss the constitutional changes but most of the discussions were closed to overseas media. Meanwhile, China Central Television quoted Xi and other Chinese leaders along with other NPC deputies and CPPCC delegates as fully endorsing the changes and saying they reflected the wills of the party and the people.
The state media has largely refrained from discussing the issue and the authorities are vigilant in censoring any critical comments on social media.
This is in sharp contrast to the predominantly negative reports in the Western media. Most reports have portrayed the change as a power grab by Xi and suggest China is moving backwards to one-man rule and likening the situation to the era of Mao Zedong.
The most curious comment came from US President Donald Trump who was quoted saying in jest that now Xi was president for life, maybe the US would want to “give it a shot someday”.
So far, the state media has remained mute towards the sharp criticisms in the Western press but the silence is not helpful.
Whether Chinese officials like it or not, many of the issues raised in the Western media are valid. For instance, the term limits on the presidency were first introduced in the constitution in 1982 and were specifically aimed at preventing lifetime appointments following the lessons of the Mao era. The removal of term limits does suggest a break from the informal institutional rules that have governed leadership successions since the 1990s.
Failure to engage in any sensible discussion of all those issues could heighten international concerns and lend support to the forces in the West that seek the containment of China.
Already, influential US politicians and analysts have argued it was a mistake to allow China to join the World Trade Organisation, which paved the way for China’s economic lift-off.
In a strategic national defence review unveiled by the Pentagon in early January, China, along with Russia, was described as undermining the international order and using “predatory economics to coerce neighbouring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage”.
For the moment, Trump may still focus on the trade deficit with China but it is China’s deepening trust deficit with the US and other Western countries (and even neighbouring countries like India) that will have the greatest geopolitical implications. ■
Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper