In clearing the way to serve as Chinese president indefinitely, Xi Jinping has sought to head off speculation over his future and amass even more authority to implement his key political objectives, analysts and sources close to the leadership say.
The removal of the 10-year limit on the presidency is part of proposed constitutional amendments announced on Sunday which lawmakers are expected to rubber stamp at an annual meeting of parliament starting March 5.
China’s state-controlled media have sought to justify the surprise move as one that guarantees stable leadership as China enters a period that Xi has identified as crucial in his vision to restore the country to its rightful place as a global power. The move has, however, been met with some disquiet from political elites and the broader public.
Xi has used his presidency to champion China’s increasingly expansive international agenda, from his country’s claims in the South China Sea to his signature global infrastructure plan, the Belt and Road Initiative.
At the Communist Party’s key five-yearly congress last October, he enunciated new long-term goals for China to become a “global leader” in terms of international influence, with a “world class” military force by the middle of the century.
“If we’re beginning to see a much more aggressive international posture by China, expect more of that, turned up to 11,” said one Beijing-based political analyst who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Central to Xi’s rhetoric of Chinese rejuvenation includes eventual unification with self-ruled democratic Taiwan, which Beijing has claimed as its own since 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek‘s routed Nationalist troops fled to the island.
Proudly democratic Taiwan has shown no interest in being run by an autocratic China, and indeed many Taiwanese identify less and less with the mainland despite the close cultural ties.
“Reunification with Taiwan is an indispensable part of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” a source with ties to the leadership told Reuters.
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement on Monday that constitutional amendments were China’s “internal affairs” and that it would not “jump to a conclusion” about potential implications for Taiwan.
David Kelly, director at the China Policy research company, said Xi’s full agenda on the domestic front, including concerns over high levels of debt in the economy and tackling a major overhaul of the country’s financial sector, “require you not be in a lame duck role”.
“His solutions to domestic problems is where it begins and ends,” said Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College in London.
The limit of two five-year presidential terms was written into China’s constitution after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 by Deng Xiaoping, who espoused collective leadership in explicit recognition of the dangers of one-man rule and the cult of personality.
Life tenure in leading posts and over-concentration of power, Deng said in 1980, were “major problems” which threatened to impede the progress of the party and risked “seriously alienating” the people.
Critics say that far from providing stability, Xi’s extended tenure would only serve to reintroduce uncertainty and power struggles to future Communist Party leadership transitions.
The constitutional amendments were discussed in January at the Second Plenum of the 204-member Central Committee, a key Communist Party decision-making body, but there were reservations and no consensus was reached, according to two sources with ties to senior officials.
“There were differing voices,” the first source told Reuters, adding that the deadlock was a significant reason why a third plenum, normally held in the autumn, was organized this week.
The source said the announcement of the constitutional amendments on Sunday, a day before the three-day plenary session, was designed to railroad the proposal.
“The manner in which Xi is forcing through the changes is drastic, it was not consensus-based,” said the second source. “It was forceful and may offend many people, not just liberals.”
China’s State Council Information Office, which doubles as the office of the party’s spokesman, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Despite a state media propaganda push, the prospect of Xi’s indefinite rule prompted many Chinese social media users to circumvent internet censors and share wry political memes on social media, some drawing unflattering comparisons with authoritarian rule in North Korea.
Still, the party believes it has found the best model of government for China – and is not afraid to shout about it as it looks at a West many in China believe is stagnating and is increasingly hostile towards Beijing and its political system.
“Democracy, which has been explored and practiced by Western societies for hundreds of years, is ulcerating,” an editorial in the Global Times, which often expresses nationalist views, said Wednesday.
“Our country must not be disturbed by the outside world or lose our confidence as the West grows increasingly vigilant toward China.”