The abolition of the two-term limit for the presidency will allow Xi Jinping to stay on indefinitely. But this is not just about one man
Anyone shocked to learn that Xi Jinping intends to continue indefinitely as China’s president was not paying attention. Every indication was there. The surprise is that he spelt it out so quickly and bluntly, with Sunday’s announcement that the Communist party plans to scrap the two-term limit that would have seen him depart in 2023. He is an “emperor”, say his critics, “president for life”. Not so, insisted a state-run tabloid – but it simultaneously invoked the need for strong and “consistent” leadership as far ahead as 2035, or even the middle of the century (when Mr Xi will be 96). In fact, he does not need to change the rules; there is no term limit for heading the party and central military commission – his real sources of power. Whether he is acting from strength, or to ward off potential challenges, it is a statement of intent. An increasingly powerful, forceful man is telling the world that he plans to run his increasingly powerful, forceful country for the foreseeable future.
This “is the reverse of history … a statement of ‘no’ to the reforms China had achieved in the past 40 years”, warned student leaders from Tiananmen and other prominent pro-democracy exiles, usually harsh critics of the Communist party’s record. The elite survivors of Maoism’s disasters – Mr Xi’s father among them – vowed to prevent another strongman ever emerging. They sought to collectivise and institutionalise politics, through measures such as term limits. It seems unlikely that their successors anticipated how quickly and thoroughly Mr Xi would consolidate power. But no one could do this entirely alone; they opened the door. Many had come to believe that the party-state was mired by inertia and corruption. The weakness of the last leadership, the way vested interests fended off much-needed changes, and increasingly open public discontent made the status quo look unsatisfactory and unsustainable. Instead of dispersing power, the party chose to concentrate it. This repressive turn began before Mr Xi came to power in 2012. He has doubled down on it, and personalised it.