These most momentous changes took place during a very important political meeting of this year, the so-called Two Sessions. Paragraph 3 of Article 79 of the Constitution was duly rubber-stamped. There were 2,958 votes in favor, just two against, three abstentions and one invalid vote. A majority of only two-thirds was required.
The normally poker-faced Xi was relaxed as the ballot unfolded, smiling as the results were announced. However, Xi had made great efforts to plough the soil and sow the seed. Shortly before the meeting, the six other members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) pledged their support for the amendments.
NPC secretary general Wang Chen said, "The centralized and unified leadership of the party...has been adhered to throughout the whole process of the constitutional amendment to ensure [it is heading] in the correct political direction."
It was a unanimous display of loyalty to Xi, but an unsurprising one. Incidentally, more than half the 2,158 people at the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, one of the Two Sessions, were attending for the first time after the five-yearly reshuffle.
The South China Morning Post quoted Beijing-based political analyst Zhang Lifan, "They are not attached to any political faction and will faithfully follow the main themes set by the party. And they will be the new mainstream." In other words, they have been elevated under Xi's leadershipand were handpicked for their reliability, so their only loyalty is to him.
In 1999, only 21 of 2,680 delegates voted against and 24 abstained from a constitutional amendment. In 2004, the last time such a vote occurred, only ten of 2,890 delegates voted against and 17 abstained. There was no debate, no discussion this time around. It was simply choreographed.
Speaking to delegates at the meeting, Xi said, "The five years since the 18th Party Congress have been five extraordinary years.These achievements have been hard-won and are the result of the strong leadership of the party's Central Committee."
Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the Department of Government and International Studies of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Hong Kong Baptist University, talked to ANI about its significance. He noted, "It underscores the speed and magnitude of Xi's power consolidation: in five years, Xi has managed to become the core of the leadership, the commander-in-chief of the People's Liberation Army battle command, his thought has been enshrined in both the party and the state constitution; and he has sidelined many rivals and promoted many of his allies."
Indeed, Xi had already far surpassed Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao in terms of his political legacy, and he now even eclipses Deng Xiaoping in terms of accruing personal power, something that has always been his ambition.
Xi and his allies were obviously nervous of the reaction to this news at home and abroad, hence the huge clampdown by censors on any online discussion. One bold voice who spoke out was former China Youth Daily editor Li Datong, who said, "This historical retrogression carries with it the seeds of China again lapsing into turmoil."
The ironic thing was that, while state media trumpeted "overwhelming appeal" and "unanimous support" from the party and public, any discussion of the abolition of presidential term limits was totally suppressed. This is hardly the action one would take if it is wholeheartedly supported by all.
Rather, it simply shows how complete is the authority and control that the Communist Party of China (CPC) possesses over the populace. There is no doubt that this has been a secretive top-down initiative and not something demanded by the grassroots.
Because of blanket censorship, it is difficult to gauge reaction within China. Certainly, state media downplayed what changes to the Constitution had occurred, and many citizens were totally unaware that changes were occurring at all. Many simply shrugged their shoulders as they see the CPC as irrelevant to their daily lives, or alternatively they appreciate the fact that they have a strong government that gives them security and makes decisions for them.
Western media and academia have raised the greatest amount of noise about the dangers of the change. Willy Lam, writing for The Jamestown Foundation, described it as a "stunning regression". He wrote, "Apart from Xi's apparently megalomaniacal proclivities, the best indication that he aspires to become 'Mao Zedong of the 21st century' is his lack of interest in picking a successor."
Lam continued, "In tandem with boosting his own powers, Xi has pulled out all the stops to ensure the CPC's tight control over all aspects of Chinese life. The propaganda machinery has gone into overdrive stressing the near omnipotence of the party - and its total dominance over all sectors of the polity."
When asked about potential negative impacts, Cabestan listed the "ultra-centralization of power, arbitrariness and lifelong tenure; return of the personality cult and personal power as opposed to collective leadership".
He elaborated that, "In any event, it confirms that the CPC has turned its back on any likely democratization, and on the contrary is on a monarchist drive". Cabestan continued, "Having said that, Xi has many advisers such as Liu He or Wang Huning, and listens to them more than we may think; he is not exerting a kind of solitary power."
However, China's history is one replete with the people's wellbeing relying on a leader's benevolence. Unfortunately, even recent history shows that supreme or dynastic power in an individual's hands is fraught with risk.
Xi never appointed a successor at the 19th Party Congress last October and he has instituted a return to strongman politics. China is undoubtedly ruled by one man, a type of patriarch once personified by Mao.
Centralized power is dangerous, including underlings unwilling to tell the truth or to explain reality. While Xi will surely take credit for successes, what will happen when reversals occur, particularly in the economic sphere as the country faces stronger headwinds? Will he own up to those as well, or will he blame others?
Xi's cult of personality is certain to grow, especially via the championing of fawning state media. What they are saying is that there is nobody more talented than Xi, now or in the future, who could run China. That is a very dangerous precedent. Even if Xi does not prove any more authoritarian than he already has, what about his successor who will ascend under the same rules?
Nowadays, supporting the party means fealty to Xi, given that he is the "core" of the party. There are almost no checks and balances if Xi is promoted to demigod status, and already the CPC has spread its tentacles of control and influence over multiple facets of society.
Asked whether any positives could be taken from the change in presidential term, Cabestan told ANI, "Deepening the battle against corruption, and more importantly, a bigger chance that the reforms approved in 2013 and later are going to be implemented and more completely achieved."
He added that "local resistance to Xi may also weaken, which has been a big issue in the last five years".
China argues that removing term limits allows consistency with the service terms of commander-in-chief and general secretary posts. The People's Daily stated, "It's a decision that suits China's situation and ensures long-term stable rule of the party, and a move to make steady the 'trinity' of the leader of the Communist Party, of the People's Republic of China and of the PLA."
Spokesman for the first session of the NPC, Zhang Yesui, argued in the same vein on 11 March, "Adopting the same treatment in the constitution for presidential terms helps maintain the authority and leadership of the party with comrade Xi Jinping as its core. It helps to strengthen and improve the state's leadership system."
His supporters argue that Xi needs more time to build support and ensure political stability. They claim that all gains and momentum towards the "China dream" would be lost if he steps down in 2023.
Chinese business interests, as well as foreign investors at that, will surely continue to welcome Xi as long as stability is maintained. World-famous companies have exhibited a penchant for tolerating all manner of intrusive regulations as long as they can remain in China's lucrative market.
Chinese media orchestrated an attack on any criticism of its political changes, and pointing out the divisive style of politics in the West, corruption and inefficiency. For example, defending his political masters, HuXijin of the Global Times tweeted, "Totalitarianism, dictatorship are very old political vocabulary. China is new reality of international politics. Western scholars need some imagination to help them think out of box when observing Chinese leaders."
What does this augur for the future? Cabestan predicted, "We are going to see more tensions in the South China Sea, with India and more importantly with Taiwan. Nonetheless, Xi's priorities are domestic ones: managing the slowing down of the economy, reducing the state-owned enterprise and local government debt, the rising frustrations of many social strata fed by rising expectation and a decreasing ability of the government to fulfil them. So, economic, financial and social reforms are going to be Xi's priorities in the coming years."
Xi could perhaps provide greater continuity in dealing with the Kim regime in North Korea. It could mean enough time for the Kuomintang Party to regain power in Taiwan, which would surely improve relations with China as well.
Southeast Asia can continue eyeing a more assertive China. Beijing has already done a good job of dividing and conquering, as well as promoting its 'One Belt, One Road' initiative as a stimulant. The Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte is likely to lose even more of its will to stand up to China in the South China Sea. India will need to be careful, as Xi was stung by Delhi's obstinacy at Doklam last year.
Under the constitutional changes, the National Supervision Commission was also established, an umbrella body with sweeping powers to investigate and detain any state employee. This commission ranks higher than the Supreme Court and top prosecutor's office. It will merge the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) with several other governmental and prosecutorial anti-corruption departments plus the supervision ministry under the State Council. Indeed, those arrested would have no recourse
to a lawyer, something of which legal experts are highly critical, although such measures will only be enacted after a vote on 20 March.
Another important change to the Constitution was the addition of "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era".
It is anyone's guess how long Xi plans to stay in power. Mao reigned for 27 years and Deng for 18. Certainly, amagic number for Xi is 2035, the year that he promised China would achieve socialist modernization. Indeed, Xi's ambitious and self-imposed deadline is a whole 15 years earlier than Deng's goal as he urgently advances his agenda.
However, Xi would be 82 years old if he was still the leader in 2035. Ruling until his death would seem unlikely, as that would be a recipe for an ugly changeover of power as occurred with Mao. However, party historian Zhang Lifan said that "Xi Jinping may even maintain a decisive role until 2049, the centenary of the establishment of the People's Republic, when he will be 96 years old".
Wang Qishan, the former anti-corruption tsar, is expected to make a comeback as vice president. He was seated on the second row of the presidium at legislative meetings, alongside members of the Politburo and right after the seven members of the PSC.
All 21 changes to the Constitution follow one objective, to strengthen the party's legitimacy and blur the line between party and state. Deng had moved to separate part and state after the Cultural Revolution to delimit the party's role and reduce excessive concentration of power. Now that has been undone.
Some even see the constitutional change as a sign of vulnerability. Perhaps Xi genuinely fears opposition to his rule, and this is why he pushed it through so urgently and suddenly. Nevertheless, the stakes are high. Will this action engineer greater internal resistance, even among the moderate, and hence generate more repression by the government?
In 2012, Xi gathered the party faithful and told them, "No individual or organization is above the constitution. Anyone who acts against the constitution or the law will be held accountable." Clearly Xi feels that this statement no longer applies to him.
Truly, Xi does not share power well. Now with this unlimited presidential mandate on the home front, a more confident Xi will surely be more assertive on the international scene too. (ANI)