CCP once again embraces the strongman model

The Chinese Communist Party has announced that it will seek to amend the nation’s constitution to remove the two-term limit for the presidency. If approved — and there are few doubts that it will — the amendment will permit Xi Jinping to remain in office past 2023, when his second five-year term will expire. While widely expected, the announcement also generated surprise, largely for confirming the 64-year-old Xi’s naked ambition and his desire to restore a power structure that was discredited after the passing of Chairman Mao Zedong.

Since he became general secretary of the CCP’s Central Committee in November 2012 and president of China five months later, Xi’s tenure has been marked by the relentless consolidation of power and the assertion of party authority over virtually all spheres of life in China. He conducted a ruthless anticorruption campaign to purge enemies and win public support, and promoted supporters to key posts in the state and party bureaucracies. The propaganda machine has resurrected the term “lingxiu,” a Chinese word for leader that was once used for Mao (and his successor Hua Guofeng) and has been discredited as a result. And, perhaps most significant, “Xi Jinping Thought” has been incorporated into the CCP constitution, a move that effectively elevates him above all others in interpreting policy and doctrine.

Debate about whether Xi would accept the constitution’s two-term limit began immediately after he was re-elected last year to a second term as president. Unlike previous leaders, Xi did not identify an obvious successor (or potential successors), prompting speculation that he would try to stick around. Some asserted that there was no need for formal constitutional revision as the two-year limit did not apply to Xi’s two other posts — CCP general secretary and the all-important chairman of the Central Military Commission — where real power resides. Over two decades ago, the president and the general secretary were different people.

Others countered that the change would align the reality of power with formal positions and reflects Xi’s desire to deeper entrench his rule. Supporters insist that continuity is needed as China enters a “crucial period” between 2020 and 2035 when it aspires to become a modern, prosperous state. They also noted that Xi could claim he was embracing the norm of “strongman rule” that is embodied by leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, a partner in Xi’s efforts to rewrite international norms and rules, and a potential rival in some geopolitical arenas.

The amendment, if approved, will reverse trends initiated by China’s last strongman, Deng Xiaoping, to decentralize power in China. Deng was well aware of the dangers of one-man rule and pushed for measures that would distribute and formalize decision-making in China, and prevent the emergence of another Mao. There was always a certain hypocrisy in Deng’s thinking, as he retained power despite giving up all his government and party titles. At the end of his life, he was officially identified only as chairman of the China Bridge Association (the card game, not the infrastructure) but he was the ultimate decision-maker for important matters.

Ironically, the success of that effort is evident in the call for constitutional amendment. Apparently, Xi cannot risk giving up his titles as Deng did. It also shows that Xi is aware of the potential counter currents that he is creating and the need to retain all possible levers of power to defeat them.

One indication of that opposition is the public reaction to the announcement of the constitutional revision. Censors on China’s social media platforms have been working overtime to block offensive or troublesome phrases. One list of censored items contains dozens of words and phrases, ranging from “long live the emperor” to “500 years.” The phrase “to board a plane” has been blocked, as it sounds in Chinese like “to ascend the throne.” At one point, the English letter “N” was blocked, reportedly because censors feared it was being used in its mathematical sense, as an integer to signify an unlimited number (or time in office.) Finally, the phrase “I disagree” has also been censored.

Public disapproval on social media platforms will not stop Xi and his supporters. It is, however, an indication of the challenges that he will face as he consolidates power and governs the country. China is more complex and sources of opposition are greater than they were in Mao’s days. Governing a country of China’s size is difficult for a committee, a party or even a single central government. The ability of one man to do so, no matter how ably assisted, is daunting. Nevertheless, Xi remains confident he can do the job. Time will tell, but Japan and other governments must prepare to deal with a system of centralized power and a leader full of self-confidence.