Does lifting two-term limit for president Xi Jingping mark the end of China’s ‘collective’ leadership?
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Does lifting two-term limit for president Xi Jingping mark the end of China’s ‘collective’ leadership?

The real cause of concern should be the methodologies of Xi Jinping’s rise and their systemic implications. Xi’s most powerful tool has been anti-graft campaigns that have imprisoned hundreds of thousands officials. Institutions have been replaced by personalities

opinion Updated: Mar 12, 2018 19:11 IST
Chinese President Xi Jinping applauds after the parliament passed a constitutional amendment lifting presidential term limits, at the third plenary session of the National People's Congress, Great Hall of the People, Beijing, China, March 11, 2018(REUTERS)

China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) on March 11 lifted the two-term limit on the post of president and vice-president, which world media has described as making Xi Jinping president for life. This limited focus on Xi misses the woods for the trees. The post of the president is ceremonial though one can extrapolate how this change can weaken the ‘convention’ of party secretary generals passing the baton after two terms even though no such limit is stipulated. Xi not only holds the most powerful position of party secretary general and chairman of the Central Military Commission, but already chairs a dozen other top-level ‘small policy groups’.

The real cause of concern should be the methodologies of Xi’s rise and their systemic implications. Xi’s most powerful tool has been anti-graft campaigns that have imprisoned hundreds of thousands officials. Its czar, Wang Qishan, is all set to defy the age limit to become China’s vice-president this week. Institutions have been replaced by personalities. At the centre of this transmutation lies the end of China’s ‘collective’ leadership, which has been the key to China’s rise since early 1990s.

The Communist Party of China (CPC) says that the country faces unprecedented new challenges and its continued prosperity and security demands strong leadership as also greater synergy between State and CPC. Common sense then would call for the party constitution to follow the State constitution and also provide for a two-term limit for the secretary general. But this logic fails to appreciate that, in China, it is not the State that controls the party and military; it is the party that ‘owns’ both the State and military. So it should not sound uncanny that the State constitution must conform to the party line.

However, it was “paramount” leader Deng Xiaoping, who, in early 1980s, had sought to separate the party and State to ensure stability and transparency as the basis for prosperity. His bold reforms introduced the concept of ‘retirement’ both for the State and military. Deng was compelled by 27 years of uncontested rein of Mao Zedong, whose social engineering experiments of Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution killed millions while fear and famine gripped those alive and not able to flee. Deng downsized the armed forces from 4.1 million to 3 million and his two-term limit for presidency nourished the institution of ‘collective’ leadership. For the next 20 years, teams of Jiang Zemin and Li Peng and then by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao steered China’s rise.

The Xi Jinping-Li Keqiang duo was anything but ‘collective’, and the proceedings of the 19th party congress last October and the 13th national people’s congress now leave no doubt that Xi, the “core”, is in the driving seat. From day one, Xi was projected as first among equals and he has rapidly increased his lead over his increasingly dispensable team members. The succession of new leaders during the 19th party congress was at wide variance with established conventions, including on age of retirement, which means that the next succession in 2022 can be highly volatile.

The last few examples show how, each time, while amendments have become decisive, the minuscule contrarian voices have just dried up. In the amendments of 1999, 21 of the 2,860 delegates had voted against and 24 had abstained from incorporating the “theory” of Deng. In 2004, only 10 of the 2,890 delegates voted against and 17 abstained from adding President Jiang’s “theory of three represents” as also from providing formal protection to “private property”. After a gap of 14 years, amendments, this Sunday, altered the basic structure of China’s constitution, yet just two of the 2,964 delegates voted against, three abstained and one ballot was declared invalid.

While leaders may celebrate this growing unanimity, nothing is more dangerous for rulers than citizens’ being resigned to their fate and giving up constant questioning of their official make-believe. Conversely, ruling-by-rhetoric always ends up unleashing jingoistic impulses and brinkmanship. Mao and Deng had long innings but never needed official titles as they had ushered new eras in China’s life.

Does Xi show that promise?

Swaran Singh¬ is professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Mar 12, 2018 16:50 IST