By Prarthana Mitra
The Chinese National People’s Congress on Sunday voted unanimously to repeal presidential term limits, allowing Xi Jinping to retain his presidency after the end of his second term in 2023. Only two of the 2,963 delegates voted against the Communist Party’s proposal to remove the clause that presidents ‘shall serve no more than two consecutive terms’ from the constitution, while three abstained from casting their vote.
‘Dictator for life’
Xi consolidated power after assuming office as general secretary of the Communist Party in 2012, which has no term limits. . China’s “bombshell” decision is being seen by many as an open declaration of a new regime in the world’s most populous country, oddly reminiscent of Mao’s one-man personality cult era. That regime was brought to an end with Deng Xiaoping’s era of “collective leadership” and orderly succession, the very laws that Sunday’s vote abolished.
Constitutional term limits for presidents were introduced though the 1982 constitution to avoid the possibility of tyranny in a single-party state.
“If someone stays in office for 15 years, the people won’t dare express their opinions to him,” said Fang Yi, a framer of the constitution, according to The New York Times.
US President Donald Trump, who has been wary of China’s stupendous growth over the last decade but has yet appeared on good terms with Xi said days before the vote that Xi was now “president for life.” But others have not referred to the new developments too kindly. Susan Shirk, leading China expert and deputy assistant secretary of state under former US President Bill Clinton, said Xi is setting himself up to rule China as a ‘dictator for life’.
Narrowing space for dissent
China has little to no global media presence and there are only a few voices of opposition among the local media, With such a restricted environment, it is easy for the regime to control the narrative. The regime has embarked on a propaganda drive to back the decision and has worked swiftly to censor any criticism.
The state-run China Daily even assailed ‘Western critics’ of the move as “naysayers”, saying they “revel in their ignorance of China’s reality” and have a “malicious predisposition toward China’s political system” that stems from their “their irrational, subjective and unprofessional ideological bias.”
Xi defended the move, saying it will “perfect the system of the party and the state,” according to a comment published in the People Daily, the Communist Party’s newspaper. Yet, even though he said the constitutional amendments reflect “the common will of the party and people,” there is indeed some grumbling within China.
What lies ahead
The subtext is clear; an indefinite rule not only allows Xi to centralise political control over the state but now ties the fate of the entire nation to a single man. The risk of flawed policies increases and the room for debate and dissent has narrowed“It will get worse, for sure … the consequences will be very severe,” warns Wu’er Kaixi, a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen protests currently in exile in an interview with The Guardian. Tom Rafferty, China regional manager for the Economist Intelligence Unit, believes that the amendment reduces the chances that the next leadership transition would be as orderly as those in 2002 and 2012. Xi’s roles as party leader and commander-in-chief of the military do not come with term limits, making him all-powerful.
Although the decision has drawn condemnation from many quarters, some analysts have questioned such reactions. Writing in Forbes, Salvatore Babones said: “The reality is that China was, is, and will remain for the foreseeable future a one-party state.”