The roughly 3000 delegates of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, voted almost unanimously on Sunday to end a two-term limit on the presidency, one of the main leadership posts held by Xi Jinping.
While the overwhelming approval by the party-controlled congress was not a surprise, the repercussions go beyond just allowing Mr Xi to stay on longer.
Here’s what is at stake, and why ending the term limit matters.
Why is the limit in place now?
One lesson that China drew from the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution was the danger of concentrating power in one supreme, unassailable leader who ruled for life.
In 1982, when China was recovering from that chaotic era, lawmakers approved a new Constitution that said the president and also the vice president “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms”.
It is sometimes said that Deng Xiaoping, who led China after Mao, introduced the term limit to prevent the top leader from again becoming too powerful. But that’s not entirely true. Back then the Chinese presidency was not such a powerful post. Deng wielded much of his power informally, without titles or term limits, and through his control of the military.
Even so, the politicians and legal experts who drafted China’s 1982 Constitution saw lifelong tenure as a recipe for tyranny, especially in a one-party state.
“If someone stays in office for 15 years, the people won’t dare express their opinions to him,” said Fang Yi, one of the framers of the Constitution. “The French president begins with one term of seven years, with an option for a second term. But that’s different. They have opposition parties who pick their faults every day.”
How did it become important?
The presidential term limit became more important in the 1990s, when Deng prepared to pass power to his successor, Jiang Zemin.
Under Deng in the 1980s, there was turmoil in succession, as two protégés were forced to resign following student demonstrations. Deng tried to ensure the success of his final choice, Mr Jiang, by setting him up in China’s three most powerful posts: Communist Party general secretary, chairman of the commission in charge of the military and the presidency, which Mr Jiang took over in 1993.
But Deng also wanted to ensure that Mr Jiang did not stay on indefinitely. He started a succession cycle by also promoting Mr Jiang’s younger heir-apparent, Hu Jintao.
Under Mr Jiang and later Mr Hu, a new norm formed. The top leader had clear authority because he held all three main posts. But he had to hand them to a successor after about a decade.
“The three-in-one leadership system and form – of party general secretary, state president and military commission chairman – is not only necessary but also the most fitting for a great party and a great country like ours,” Mr Jiang said in 2004.
That arrangement allowed two of the most stable transitions of power in China’s modern history, from Mr Jiang to Mr Hu in 2002, and then Mr Hu to Mr Xi six years ago.
Is the presidency powerful in China?
In China, the political job that matters most is the general secretary of the Communist Party. The party controls the military and domestic security forces, and sets the policies that the government carries out. China’s presidency lacks the authority of the American and French presidencies.
This difference is reflected in language. In Chinese, China’s president is called “zhuxi”, which really translates as “chairman”. Foreign presidents get a different title, “zongtong”. So in effect, Chinese people are referring to Mr Xi as the “state chairman”, though in English his title is officially translated as “state president” to put him on an even footing with other world leaders.
Still, the Chinese presidency is not entirely ceremonial. The president has the power, acting with the legislature, to declare war or a state of emergency. In times of crisis, disagreement between a party leader and president could cause trouble.
The presidency has become increasingly prominent thanks to China’s growing global stature. At home, Mr Xi usually speaks as party leader; abroad, he appears as president, who is the formal head of state. Mr Xi relishes the prestige of state visits to the White House or Buckingham Palace, which might be awkward if he were not president.
Why change the system?
The official Chinese news media have said that Mr Xi wants to abandon the term limit so that he can keep his trinity of leadership posts. According to Xinhua News Agency and other party-run news outlets, having a term limit on just the presidency is unreasonable because neither of Mr Xi’s other two major posts – party leader and military chairman – has a similar limit.
Of course, this argument does not address the other solution to that inconsistency: imposing limits on the party and military posts. His action leaves little doubt that Mr Xi is clearing the way to remain top leader for a long time to come, and without clear rivals.
If the term limit remained, Mr Xi would have to step down as president at the end of his next five-year term, in 2023. Any successor could potentially become a rival.
Mr Xi seems determined to remain “three-in-one” leader because he sees himself on a historic mission to make China into a great power. Achieving that will take more than a decade, Mr Xi has said.
Last year, Mr Xi showed his intent to stay in power by declining to promote a potential successor into the new Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s most powerful body. Mr Xi and Mr Hu both served political apprenticeships in the Standing Committee before taking over.
Will Xi will be leader for life?
Mr Xi has produced plenty of surprises in his first five years in power, not least his decision to abolish the term limit before his second term as president had even started. So predicting Mr Xi’s future steps isn’t easy.
Even so, The People’s Daily said earlier this month that ending the presidential term limit does not “imply a system of lifelong leadership”. The point seems to be that while Mr Xi may be around for a while, he won’t be another Mao, who remained in power even as he grew ill and incoherent with age.
But Mr Xi has not specified how many terms he plans on. Perhaps Mr Xi himself does not have a firm idea yet. Or perhaps he figures he can enhance his power even further by keeping everyone else guessing.
-The New York Times