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More on the aftermath of China’s big constitutional change

More on the aftermath of China’s big constitutional change

The proposed changes to the Chinese constitution that were announced over the weekend are still dominating the headlines, in China and outside. There are a number of amendments (see translation on NPC Observer), but the one attracting the most attention is, of course, the proposed removal of presidential term limits.

OPINIONS IN CHINA

  • “The broad masses of cadres resolutely support the proposed modifications to the constitution” is the headline of a piece published in different versions (in Chinese) as a top story by the People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency, and the Liberation Daily. The last of these is the journal of the People’s Liberation Army — the South China Morning Post saw the piece as evidence that China’s military has thrown its weight “behind a controversial move to scrap term limits.”

  • “The strong leadership of the CPC has proved to be a decisive factor for what this country has achieved both economically and politically over the past four decades,” and the ending of term limits was “necessitated by the need to perfect the Party and the State leadership system,” says the China Daily, whose founding mission was to make China’s case to the outside world.

  • The Global Times gave a more articulate defense of the proposed changes and that actually gives a reason for the ending of term limits: “China cannot stop and take a break. Our people believe that every year is crucial. The CPC has made development goals to be achieved in 2035 and 2050. The country must seize the day, seize the hour. Our country must be united, energetic and be able to continue with opening-up. Our country must not be disturbed by the outside world or lose our confidence as the West grows increasingly vigilant toward China.”

  • “Removing term limitations on national leaders will subject us to the ridicule of the civilized nations of the world. It means moving backward into history, and planting the seed once again of chaos in China, causing untold damage.” This is the argument made in an open letter by Li Datong 李大同 (in translation on China Media Project). Li is a respected editor with establishment credentials who once led Freezing Point 冰点, a weekly supplement of investigative journalism to the China Youth Daily, which was shut down in 2006.

  • “Wang Ying, a businesswoman who has advocated government reforms, wrote on WeChat that the Communist Party’s proposal was ‘an outright betrayal,’” according to the the Associated Press, which also says that in a swiftly-deleted social media message, sexologist Li Yinhe 李银河 “called the removal of term limits ‘unfeasible’ and would ‘return China to the era of Mao.’ The same article quotes Li Datong: “My generation has lived through Mao. That era is over. How can we possibly go back to it?”

CENSORSHIP

As the Chinese public grappled with the news, the censors plucked Chinese social media clean of even passing references to the planned extension of Xi’s grip on power.

  • Obviously, Winnie the Pooh — the cartoon bear in a famous meme of Xi that started in 2013 — was deleted in all instances, especially one captioned “Find the thing you love and stick with it.”

  • Another example: A meme of a Durex condoms logo and the tagline “Two rounds just aren’t enough” (干两次,是不够的 gàn liǎng cì, shì bùgòu de).

  • Even the letter n was briefly censored, as online commenters committed the sin of “trying to calculate how long Xi Jinping might stay in power.”

  • Read an extended list of the many dozens of censored words and phrases on China Digital Times.

THE VIEW FROM ABROAD

  • “More of a gamble than it seems,” says (paywall) the Financial Times of Xi’s “bid to stay in power.” The article notes that the muted domestic media coverage of the amendments “has invited speculation that the Party is facing internal resistance from Mr Xi’s detractors,” and that the move risks a “backlash from China’s urban elites if not the masses.”

  • Does Xi fear revenge from enemies he’s made? This is one prominent theory animating discussion of why Xi Jinping has made this move at this time. A Foreign Policy article (paywall) from October last year (read SupChina summary here), for example, argued that “even as they smile and grovel to survive, many inside the party are nurturing private hatreds — which means that Xi can ill-afford to let go of the power he’s taken into his hands, even if he gives up his official titles in 2022.”

  • “Xi’s ability to push this decision through in the short-term is undoubtedly a display of his grip on all levers of power. But the very fact that he feels the need to do so could easily be a sign of something else – that he is possessed by an urgency to gather even more power than he already has to keep his enemies at bay,” argues Richard McGregor, author of The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.

  • “Xi has taken actions that, by his own political logic, would make it difficult for him to leave office,” says the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos: “Since taking the helm of the Party, in 2012, he has punished hundreds of thousands of Party cadres, military officers, and oligarchs, a campaign of arrest and executions that has left many powerful, embittered families eager for revenge.”  

  • Danger ahead for China’s neighborhood? The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda says: “If the pessimists are correct and Xi’s determination to remain in office past 2023 reflects weakness, he may see fit to forcefully demonstrate to China’s nationalists that he is the one to restore the country to greatness by taking greater risks abroad.”

  • Former Tsinghua University professor and prolific commentator on Chinese economic issues Patrick Chovanec tweeted: “[‘“China will eventually liberalize as the economy grows” is looking to be one of the most wrong widely held ideas ever’] is the new hot take. Except it ignores two things: 1) Today’s China is immensely more open than the one I knew 30 years ago. 2) The very real tension between that openness and the stagnation/regression of its political system.”

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Jeremy Goldkorn

Jeremy Goldkorn worked in China for 20 years as an editor and entrepreneur. He is editor-in-chief of SupChina, and co-founder of the Sinica Podcast.