China’s president says he is opposed to life-long rule

Xi Jinping tells foreign dignitaries that recent change on term limits has been ‘misinterpreted’

China’s president Xi Jinping says he is personally opposed to life-long rule, in spite of recent removal of two-term limit. Photograph: Naohiko Hatta/AFP/Getty Images

China’s president Xi Jinping says he is personally opposed to life-long rule, in spite of recent removal of two-term limit. Photograph: Naohiko Hatta/AFP/Getty Images

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Chinese president Xi Jinping has said that he is “personally opposed” to life-long rule, adding that foreign observers have “misinterpreted” a recent constitutional amendment that revoked the two-term limit on the presidency.

Mr Xi expressed his views at three recent meetings with foreign dignitaries and Chinese officials, according to people who either attended the meetings or were briefed on the discussions.

They added that Mr Xi justified the decision in terms of needing to align the country’s three top government and Communist party jobs. Mr Xi’s two more powerful posts – party general secretary and chairmanship of the party’s central military commission – are not subject to term limits.

Two people said Mr Xi had surprised his guests by raising the issue himself. “President Xi said he was ‘personally opposed’ to [lifetime rule] and the outside world had ‘misinterpreted’ the amendment,” one of the people said.

Mr Xi did not say at the meetings whether he intended to serve as president, party general secretary and CMC chairman for three or more terms.

On February 25th, the official Xinhua news agency announced that the Communist party’s central committee had recommended scrapping the two-term limit on China’s presidency, paving the way for Mr Xi to remain president for life if he wishes.

The committee’s “recommendation” to revoke the presidential term limit was taken at a closed-door meeting in mid-January but kept secret for more than a month.

The amendment has stirred unease among many urban elites, including college graduates, intellectuals and civil servants, who worry about a return to the excesses of one-man rule that tarnished Mao Zedong’s 27-year reign.

Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, had term limits written into China’s constitution in an effort to bring more predictability to leadership transitions in the world’s most populous country. “The amendment sends a terrible signal about institutional rule,” said one former Chinese government official.

A senior executive at a large listed Chinese state-owned enterprise added that he had been forced to answer awkward questions from investors ever since the amendment was announced. “Investors have been asking lots of questions about it,” the executive said. “It doesn’t look good.”

Economic reforms

The amendment was formally passed in March by China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, with 2,958 votes in favour and just two opposed. Mr Xi was then unanimously re-elected to a second five-year term as state president.

Defenders of the amendment argue that streamlining the technically separate party and government administrative structures will help Mr Xi tackle difficult financial and economic reforms on which his administration made little headway during his first term in office.

“There isn’t really a line between the party and government,” said one Chinese government official. “That separation was always very superficial and unnecessary.”

After the amendment was first announced in February, a commentary in the People’s Daily newspaper argued that it did not mean Mr Xi would rule for life, as party leaders would still have to step down if incapacitated by illness or advanced age. But Mr Xi himself has not commented publicly on the issue.

Mr Xi also remains genuinely popular across China because of the success of his anti-corruption campaign and nationalist foreign policies, with many people welcoming the prospect of him remaining in office for three or more terms.

Yanmei Xie, an analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing, said that one Chinese business contact angrily dismissed overseas criticism that Mr Xi’s power grab was similar to Vladimir Putin’s machinations in Russia. “These foreigners don’t understand that China needs a strong ruler,” Ms Xie quoted the businessman as saying. “Xi isn’t Putin, he’s Peter the Great.”

In addition to Mr Xi’s grip on both the party and presidency, two other members of the party’s most powerful body – the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee – simultaneously serve as state premier and NPC chairman.

In 2004 one of Mr Xi’s predecessors, Jiang Zemin, said that the Chinese party-state’s “trinity-style leadership structure is not only necessary but also appropriate for a big party and country like ours”.

But Mr Jiang, who succeeded Deng in 1989, is the only Chinese “paramount leader” since then to have fractured this trinity. He stayed on as CMC chairman, giving him control over China’s armed forces, for the first two years of Hu Jintao’s tenure as party general secretary and state president. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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