Time will tell but Xi jitters reign

Editorial | Mary Ma 27 Feb 2018

The news that China's constitution will be amended to get rid of a restriction on presidential terms of office is nothing less than earth-shattering paradigm shift in Chinese politics. Though the move had been in the grapevine for a while now, it was no less unsettling when the official announcement was made yesterday.

In making it, Xinhua News Agency said the constitutional amendment is up for deliberation at the upcoming conferences of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, which are certain to usher in the new reality of Chinese politics.

Without the amendment, President Xi Jinping will have to pass his power to a successor at the end of his second term in 2023. With it, he can stay in power for as long as he likes, given his overwhelming control of the Communist Party.

Xinhua didn't say how power transitions will take place in future, and that is naturally a cause for concern.

The downsides of this dramatic change are just too obvious to ignore. When the communists established the republic, there were no term limits for chairman Mao Zedong, who remained in power under his death.

There may not have been overt power struggles during Mao's reign, but it wasn't free of calamities either, with the most notorious one being decimation of the country from 1966 to 1976 during the Cultural Revolution. It was for good reason that Deng Xiaoping, architect of China's economic revival, introduced collective leadership in the form of the politburo standing committee and limited the number of terms a president could serve to two to ensure peaceful leadership transitions.

If some past presidents had been figureheads, the position today is anything but, as evidenced by Xi's practice of power.

Xi turns 65 in June and will be 70 when his second term ends. While he will most likely continue for a third, will he stay on for a fourth or even more terms? There's no guarantee of what's up beyond a third term, so it all depends on the situation then.

So, what will that situation be like? Xinhua didn't even make a hint. Forcing people to guess, however, means uncertainty.

Is there any upside? Certainly, it offers continuity.

China is an up-and-coming superpower that worries western democracies. Its rise was made possible by administrative efficiencies, not democratic values that emphasize checks and balances, orderly power transfers and humanitarian values.

Its leaders often say economic reforms are in deep water amid Xi's signature "Belt and Road" bid to project the country's influence far afield. To ensure his "Chinese Dream" lives on, Xi needs continuity and five more years would be too short for him.

Xi is, of course, not the first leader of a major country to do this. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has been in power since 2000 through his cynical use of constitutional loopholes that allows him to be in charge, as president or as prime minister.

The old saying goes that absolute power corrupts absolutely, so while there are certainly merits in the constitutional change that Xi wants, it's questionable that it is meritorious enough to override the constitutional checks that Deng put in place.

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