China’s Recent Political Shake-ups: Perspectives from Nanjing

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By: BRIAN HART

NANJING – When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wrapped up its 19th Party Congress in October 2017, it became clear that CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping would be staying on past the customary two terms as party leader. Breaking with tradition, no heir-apparent was promoted to the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee – the seven-man committee that rules China – leaving no one to take over when Xi’s second term would end in 2022.

Yet, it still came as a surprise when the CCP Central Committee “proposed” a constitutional amendment to formally remove presidential term limits, allowing Xi to serve indefinitely.

In China, when the CCP Central Committee “proposes” something, it happens, which is why on March 11, the National People’s Congress (NPC) voted in favor of removing term limits, with only two delegates of 2,964 voting against it.

The removal of presidential term limits has been a hot topic among students at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC). One Chinese student, speaking anonymously due to the sensitivity of the issue, said, “There was no opposition to the changes because the decision was already made. Those people who oppose the changes aren’t in the room.” He added, “A few days ago, I made a joke with a friend about Xi changing the constitutional term limits. I’m not sure he’ll even have the courage to continue serving past his second term, because it’s a hard job. You have to put the country’s interests above your own. And I worry about his health.”

For those who follow Chinese politics closely, the removal of term limits presents more questions than answers about what is going on behind closed doors in Beijing.

HNC Certificate student Kelsey Hamilton raised several pressing questions, saying, “It seems like the amendment change had been on the table for a while, but I’m curious about the politics behind the decision. Why did the CCP decide that this amendment was necessary when it’s a fairly large and disruptive change? It’ll also be interesting to see what happens after Xi steps down, and if his successors will keep to the traditional two-term limit or stay on indefinitely.”

Notably, this was not the only change to come out of the annual meeting of the NPC and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference known as lianghui (or “two sessions” in English). The government also voted to shed and merge fifteen government ministries and departments, while creating and revamping an additional eleven. The reorganization, which will take at least a year to complete, is the largest overhaul since the 1970’s.

One of the most significant outcomes of the government reforms is the creation of the National Supervisory Commission, an anti-corruption agency that now ranks higher than the Supreme People’s Court and the chief prosecutor. Anti-corruption has been one of Xi’s top priorities since coming to power in 2012. The purpose of the new supervisory commission – which will have jurisdiction over all public-sector employees, not just Party members – is to legitimize Xi’s anti-corruption work.

Speaking about the importance of the lianghui, the same anonymous student said, “These meetings have symbolic meaning; they’re less about real politics. It seems like most of the people around me, unless they care about politics a lot, don’t care about these events. Chinese people care more about things like building a new metro line near their home. They care about things that directly affect them.”

The symbolic meaning of this year’s lianghui is clear: the party is centralizing with Xi Jinping as its undisputed leader. Xi’s ability to push forward the removal of term limits as well as a massive government reorganization demonstrates his success in consolidating power. Many of Xi’s reforms were politically impossible for his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

Now that Xi has removed all institutional barriers to staying on indefinitely, we can expect to see more of these political shake-ups in the years to come.

Brian Hart is a staff writer at the Nanjing Bureau. He is an HNC Certificate/SAIS MA student currently completing his certificate at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center before starting at SAIS DC next fall.