As expected (and predicted, and propagandized), China’s National People’s Congress overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment to eliminate presidential term limits, paving the way for President Xi Jinping to stay in power after his second term ends in 2023.
The vote was as follows, per the AFP’s Joanna Chiu: 2958 in favor, 2 against, 3 abstentions, 1 invalid vote.
As we noted previously, Sunday’s move will make Mr. Xi much more powerful than he already was, and will “dampen any remnants of resistance to his rule”, said Zhang Baohui, professor of international affairs at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
“Once people know he will serve for who knows how long, it will strengthen his power and motivate everybody to bandwagon with him,” said Mr. Zhang. “Any rival will think he will be almighty.”
In other words, “Dear Leader” has returned.
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This historic shift was predicted by many since last fall, when Xi refused to appoint a successor as his power would begin to wane in a year or two as he entered what would’ve been a lame duck period for his presidency – the second half of his second term.
At the same party congress, Mr. Xi conspicuously broke with precedent by choosing not to name a pair of much younger officials to the Politburo’s ruling inner circle, the seven-member standing committee, to serve as his heirs-in-waiting. Instead, Mr. Xi chose men — no women — who were closer to his own age or older.
Mr. Xi’s strongman style has been compared to that of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. But even Mr. Putin, who has amassed considerable personal power, did not try to erase his country’s constitutional limit on serving more than two consecutive terms as president as he approached that limit in 2008.
Instead, he arranged for a close adviser with limited personal influence, Dmitri A. Medvedev, to serve as president for a single term while Mr. Putin held the post of prime minister. Mr. Putin then returned to the presidency in 2012, and is running this year for re-election to another term.
Mr. Xi may now have even greater power, and the question will be how he chooses to use it.
“Xi Jinping is susceptible to making big mistakes because there are now almost no checks or balances,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who is the author of a biography of Mr. Xi in 2015. “Essentially, he has become emperor for life.”
In another Xi-approved break with tradition, Wang Qishan, a close ally of the president’s who helped carry out Xi’s campaign against corruption and disloyalty in the party, appears set to return to power as vice president. Wang, 69, stepped down from a party position last year because of his age.
In kneejerk response, some China commentators had rather harsh words for the dramatic change, with WSJ commentator Li Yuan noting that:
“even though this has been talked about for a few years, it still feels like one man’s Pearl Harbor attack on the whole country.”
And as Axios’ Bill Bishop writes, rather ominously,
Xi is working to obliterate any boundaries between party and state and to reinsert the Communist Party of China (CPC) into all aspects of China’s economy and society – all while ensuring he’s the unchallenged embodiment of the CPC. The end result will be Xi’s complete dominion over all parts of Chinese government and society.
However, GoldMoney’s Alasdair Macleod has a slightly different view of this move:
The days when China was the cheapest cost-base for labour in manufacturing are over. Manufacturing for export markets is being increasingly mechanised, lowering unit costs and releasing labour for future expansion in other higher-value industries. The Communist party’s plans include the upgrading of infrastructure and the transition of the economy towards serving the growing middle classes.
Together with proposals to extend her own industrial revolution into the wider Asian landmass, the full transition will probably take up to twenty years.
This is the reason, according to the better-informed China experts, that the National Party Congress currently being held is doing away with the limit on the duration of Xi’s presidency, so that he can complete the plans of which he is the principal architect.
It is not, as reported in Western media, only the glory for Xi of being a dictator for life.
This year’s NPC, in granting Xi the facility to oversee his plans, fully endorses them and their progress. The move away from depending on cheap exports to America and elsewhere is likely to gain momentum, reducing the relative importance of Trump’s tariffs. Instead, China is creating what amounts to a large free trade area throughout Asia with her partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
Why should you care about China’s seemingly totalitarian shift? Mike Krieger concludes poignantly:
The reason is because a major shift in the polices of the second largest economy in the world, populated with over a billion people and run by leadership intent on establishing a far more dominant position on the world scale militarily and politically, will affect everyone.