Analyzing China's Recent Constitutional Changes By Jun Kwon
The session of the 19th Chinese Community Party (CCP) Central Committee 3rd plenum was held from Feb. 26 to Feb. 28, 2018. Considering that the second plenum was held just a month earlier in January, 2018, the 3rd plenum was supposed to be scheduled in October, 2018. The timing of the 3rd plenum clearly foresaw that the CCP would make some crucial announcements on the CCP, the country, and the Chinese people. As expected, the Central Committee of the CCP officially proposed many significant amendments to China’s Constitution.
Three amendments were particularly notable:
1) the proposal to remove the expression that the President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms” from Article 79 of the Constitution;
2) the proposal to incorporate “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” into the preamble of the Constitution; and
3) the proposal to add a sentence that “The leadership of the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics” into the Constitution.
The proposed constitutional amendments were almost unanimously endorsed by the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC). The proposal to remove the two-term limit was approved by 2,959 votes out of 2,964 ballots, just two delegates voted no and three abstained.
Despite China being an authoritarian one party state, it has experienced relative political and economic stability because of the unwritten rules within its own system. Ever since Deng Xiaoping, China has transformed from a strongman-based to a party-based state where leaders placed more importance on the continuation of the party as a means of survival rather than the extension of their own power.
The system that was put in place after Deng Xiapoing’s tenure with explicit purpose to prevent future instances of Mao-era debacles such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, initiatives that greatly lowered the Chinese standards of living. In Deng’s point of view, the absolute centralization of power within the hands of any one individual is dangerous, hence the importance of the party over the single individual.
Considering the fact that the Chinese government are proud of their political system where power is peacefully transferred from one administration to the next without struggle or a need for hereditary succession, the possibility of Xi Jinping’s third term may be startling to some, if not alarming.
Yet for the majority if the population who continue to observe the activities of the Chinese government, this is not a huge surprise as China’s most recent party congress saw no real successors ascending to the standing committee in the central politburo.
While this is certainly a big change domestically when it comes to the procedures of government and rulership, most of the impact of Xi’s possible third term will be felt domestically and not internationally.
When it comes to foreign policy, China has been consistent since the years of Deng Xiaoping. Core tenants of Chinese foreign policy have been to expand their military influence throughout their region, advance friendly trade relations with other powers around the world competing against the United States, and to increase their economic influence internationally through investments abroad.
Domestically speaking, Xi Jinping will become more powerful than he already is. Most of the changes will occur within the party and be concerned with power, rather than public policy within China. Considering Xi’s anti-corruption purge that occurred early on in his first term, Xi Jinping is free to remain in power for at least another five years after his second term because there are no visible prominent members from the opposing faction able to compete against him for power at this time.
There may be an increase in authoritarianism within the whereby Xi may impose stronger censorship measures to consolidate his political image and power among the population. However, current economic policies of state-led capitalism will remain the same as China is currently enjoying rapid economic growth as a result of those policies. Other human rights violations that continue to exist in China will also remain, including a sinicization of Uyghur region in the northwest and the Tibetan region right below it.
Some may argue that Xi, despite being safe from his political opponents, may not be safe from China’s own well educated population who are increasingly interconnected to the outside world through social media. While that may be true, Xi will continue to receive the support of many because of the increase in quality of life under his tenure and this Chinese Dream.
Xi’s support from the population will mostly hinge on continued high rates of economic growth and visible increases in living standards. There is also the possibility that economic inequality may become an issue that causes problems for Xi as well, causing polarization and instability between communities within China.
Xi Jinping may be playing emperor to some, but the truth is that his powers are not unlimited. Despite the removal of one small obstacle that would limit his time in office, many structural constraints still exist within the China that would limit his power. Xi Jinping is far from the strongmen Mao and Deng and will be unlikely to have the de facto political power that they had.
Mao and Deng gained and maintained their legitimacy through the founding of the state and redirection of the Chinese economy into better waters respectively; Xi on the other hand, is just one of the many successors that have come after those two pioneers. Xi will not be able to erase the fact that there continues to be socioeconomic problems that exist in China as well as the political culture of peaceful transfers of power. He will also not be able to completely shut down the internet lest he cause much uproar among the growing educated middle class of China.
While Xi Jinping may play his role as the Emperor of China, he is no deity and still has to abide by the laws of man.
Jun Kwon is Assistant Professor of Government at Utica College.