President Xi Jinping, Vice President Li Yuanchao and future Chinese presidents and vice presidents are no longer term-limited under the Constitution of the People's Republic of China. In a vote on March 11, the National People's Congress overwhelmingly approved amendments that allow the president and vice president to run for office any number of times.
The almost unanimous decision -- 2,964 deputies voted for the motion, two voted against, three abstained and one ballot was declared invalid -- strengthens Xi Jinping's hand in continuing economic and business reforms, fighting corruption, and entrenching the Communist Party in all aspects of the country's life.
But the move also raises fears about strongman rule, political turmoil and infighting, intensified state surveillance and censorship, and deterioration in citizen freedoms. Critics on social media had expressed fears that a personality cult around Xi was being formed, similar to what Mao Zedong cultivated in the 1960s that allowed the disastrous Cultural Revolution. Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, had imposed the limits in the 1980s to avoid one-man rule.
Xi's second and final term was to end in 2023. The amendment now makes it possible for him to continue to a third and further terms. In an editorial, the official newspaper China Daily wrote that the amendment does not "imply lifetime tenure for any leader" -- the president and vice president will still be named every five years by the National People's Congress, which in theory can decline to make Xi president again. That is a very unlikely scenario, however.
In practice, the presidency is mainly ceremonial in nature. Real power in China resides in the Communist Party and its General Secretary, who traditionally cannot remain in power after age 68, an age limit that applies to other Party leaders.
"Given the practice since Jiang Zemin [who stepped down as General Secreatry in 2003 at 77] to ensure that the president and general secretary are one and the same, it appears that if Xi intends to serve a 3rd term as president, he will be invited to stay on as general secretary beyond the age limit," writes Jeffrey A. Bader, a senior fellow at the John L. Thornton China Center of American think tank Brookings Institution.
Specter of instability
That could have a negative impact on the country's political stability, Bader warns.
"Chinese turmoil and repression in 1989 surrounding the pro-democracy demonstrations were made possible by deep splits in the leadership over policy and succession," he points out. "Since then, in the interests of stability, the Party has not allowed any public splits. Preserving such unity in a Party that has abandoned Deng’s norms will be much harder, with consequences for the stability that Chinese so value."
Still, Bader sees "a few" silver linings, including the fact that Xi is "not an impulsive, hot-headed, or irrational leader." He is likely to provide rationality and predictability, says Bader, "though he certainly is capable of boldness, creativity, and assertiveness unsettling to Americans and some neighbors (e.g. South China Sea reclamation, the Belt and Road Initiative, and the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank)."
Also encouraging is the possiblity that two of the country's most capable and outward-looking officials, Wang Qishan and Liu He, could become top advisors to Xi. Wang, who is tipped to become China's vice-president, has a "history of serving as a Mr. Fixit in handling China's largest problems," and brings "a global and market-oriented perspective to China's economic challenges," says the analyst.
As for Liu, the current vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission and director of the Leading Group for Financial and Economic Affairs, he is "arguably the official with the best understanding of the reforms needed if China is to sustain economic growth," writes Bader. "His promotion as key advisor to a strengthened Xi could provide an opportunity to give some needed fuel to the economic reform process."