Contrary to being “surprising” as many are terming it, the removal of term limits on the office of the Chinese Presidency was only bound to happen. The systemic overhauling of China’s governance system, intense military reforms, anti-corruption campaign and increasingly gripping control over nearly every aspect of China’s socio-political life were lucid indicators that Xi Jinping is here to stay. The announcement of clearing the way for President Xi Jinping to rule beyond 2023 appears to be an extension in sync with his goals, objectives and vision for China stretching till 2035.
In the run-up to the 19th Party Congress, one question loomed particularly large in the minds of both domestic and international observers: Will Xi consolidate power and seek to retain control for yet another term post-2022 or would he pave way for an anointed successor during the 2022 Party Congress? What emerged following the event was Xi receiving official recognition equivalent to the Communist Party’s founders. I argued in many of my writings ever since that the possibility of Xi serving a third term from 2022 to 2027 could well be conceivable, with loyalists and fence sitters hedging their bets. Xi’s close aide and current chief of staff, Li Zhanshu’s promotion to the Standing Committee of the Central Political Bureau and taking over the National People’s Congress (NPC) was a key move. Now that the Communist Party has announced its intention to remove the constitutional two-term limit for the presidency, the legislative and constitutional changes required to ratify the move will see Li Zhanshu playing a pivotal role, favouring Xi.
Xi began his stint as China’s top leader by concentrating on the advancement of his personal authority and relegating his political adversaries and challengers to the shadows. Thereafter, as his second term in office began, there were ample hints at the potential possibility of Xi continuing to rule China beyond the expected term, which was to end in 2023. As the six-day 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) drew to a close in 2017, the approximately 2,200 delegates decided on adding “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” to the Party’s constitution. This momentous pronouncement was an indication of things to come as China witnessed perhaps the greatest political transition in its recent history. The CCP, in effect, has become associated singularly with the face of political heavyweight, Xi Jinping, much like it was during the era of Chairman Mao.
By getting enshrined in the Party’s constitution, President Xi Jinping has emerged as the most powerful leader in the world’s largest one-party, totalitarian, communist state. This further quells the remotest hope of continuation of collective leadership in the party, the prime objective of which was to shun “one-man” rule. The dawn of Xi Jinping’s era in China led to the demise of China’s three-decade-old collective leadership system. Rather, it has paved the way for absolute centralisation of despotic power and control in the hands of Xi. The collective model of leadership traditionally saw the general secretary of the party as first among equals in the standing committee. In a clear departure from the past emphasis of such principles, including “collective leadership” and “democratic centralism,” the politburo pronounced that “centralised and unified leadership of the Party Central” was the highest principle of the Party’s leadership.
The new Standing Committee, which is the nucleus of China’s decision-making power apparatus, has aided Xi in consolidating his hold over the political and military affairs of the State. It is amply clear that Xi will continue to hold all three positions, i.e., President, General Secretary, and Chairman CMC, beyond 2022, and spread his political relic within the Party, and, in the Party’s unceasing control over the PLA. While the title of “core” leader puts Xi on par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the litmus test for Xi would be ensuring economic stability throughout China and prevail through the economic muddle, given that China’s unsteady economic growth rate is becoming progressively difficult to predict with precision. Economic steadiness has often been interpreted as an essential pre-requisite to preserving the Communist regime’s continuing political reign in China. A dwindling economic chart could cause far-reaching social strife—a scenario that any “core” Chinese leader would dread to grapple with.
China and the world from outside are witnessing perhaps the greatest of its political journeys. Mao’s 27-year reign began in 1949, followed by Deng’s 18 years in power. Xi Jinping will be 82 years when China reaches the stated objective of becoming a topmost innovative nation in 2035, and further beyond, a nation with global influence by 2050.
Dr Monika Chansoria is a Tokyo-based Senior Visiting Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA).