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Xi Jinping, China's president and the Chinese Communist Party's general secretary, is looking to break away from China's collective leadership system.
China up close

Xi Jinping's next goal? Communist Party chairman for life

Lifting of term limit prevents Li Keqiang from taking the helm in 2022

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

TOKYO -- Ten days into the Year of the Dog, Chinese President Xi Jinping made maybe one of his boldest political moves yet.

He has begun the process of altering the nation's constitution to remove a clause that limits the country's president to two consecutive five-year terms. Deleting the clause would pave the way for Xi to stay on as president after 2023.

Furthermore, with no term limits left, Xi could stay president for life.

Looking back, it was far from a quiet Chinese New Year. On Feb. 13, Sun Zhengcai, once widely seen as a front-runner in the race to succeed Xi, was formally indicted on corruption charges.

On Feb. 24, Yang Jing, a close aide to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, was dismissed as a state councilor for "serious disciplinary violations" and demoted. Yang is a member of the so-called Communist Youth League faction.

The same day, it was announced that the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee would begin its third plenary session on Feb. 26. Plenary sessions are only convened when important issues need to be decided.

Sun Zhengcai speaks at at the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing's Great Hall of the People in March 2016. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

It took only 24 hours to find out the issue.

On Sunday, state-run Xinhua News Agency relased a short announcement that was less than 50 words long:

"The Communist Party of China Central Committee proposed to remove the expression that the President and Vice-President of the People's Republic of China 'shall serve no more than two consecutive terms' from the country's Constitution."

Xi was giving his rivals no time to catch their breath. 

"Xi's real aim is not an extension of the Chinese president's term," one party source said. "There is no doubt that he will try again to have the post of perpetual Communist Party chairman, which was once held by Mao Zedong, restored."

Said another party source: "Xi is now aiming to be free of China's collective leadership system. His ideal is to have strong powers similar to those granted to a U.S. president."

Added a third: "Xi already won his battle to have his presidential term extended some time ago, perhaps between last summer and autumn."

The announcement is the latest bombshell in a political drama that began to play out in July when Sun Zhengcai abruptly fell from power.

With Sun's downfall China's future leadership race was thrown up in the air. His biggest rival Hu Chunhua never had a chance to ascend to higher office. He belongs to the Communist Youth League faction, one of two political forces that Xi has been undermining for the past five years with his anti-corruption campaign.

The motion to remove the clause from the constitution will almost assuredly be approved. Once it is, any race that might still be taking place to succeed Xi will become pointless.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is flanked by his predecessors Hu Jintao, left, and Jiang Zemin during the Chinese Communist Party's national congress in October 2017. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

Last summer, two military events reflected Xi's ambition. On June 30, Xi reviewed some 3,100 troops stationed in Hong Kong ahead of a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the former British colony's return to Chinese rule.

In a significant departure from party protocol, the Chinese troops referred to Xi as zhuxi, chairman, instead of shouzhang, leader or commander.

Exactly one month later, Xi had 12,000 troops address him as zhuxi during a military parade in Inner Mongolia. The event commemorated the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army.

Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao, as well as his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had troops address them as shouzhang.

Last summer, there was another idea that was tossed around: For Xi to revive and assume the title of Communist Party Chairman that the country's founding father Mao Zedong held. Mao kept his title until he died in 1976.

Mao led China to communism after World War II and later became a dictator. The title of party chairman not only conferred upon Mao the party's top leadership position, it gave him the status of an almighty.

Deng formally abolished the title in 1982 to prevent another dictator from coming to power and leading the country into another Cultural Revolution type of disaster.

From then on general secretary would be used, and the title would reflect a system of collective leadership.

In the same year, China's constitution was revised to limit the president to two five-year terms.

This past summer, Xi's attempts to restore the party chairman title were met with stiff resistance from party elders. Although Xi had driven his political foes into a corner and consolidated his power by then, he could not easily overcome this opposition before the party's 19th national congress.

So Xi changed tactics. He prioritized having his eponymous ideology enshrined in the party's constitution and then in the nation's constitution.

"Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era" was added to the party's constitution in October. Ammendment to the national constitution is expected at the upcoming National People's Congress from Mar.5. 

As for restoring the "party chairman" title, Xi still has four and a half years before the next party congress. That is a long time, leaving the risk of his rivals regrouping and launching a  counterattack. The third term as the nation's president will provide Xi with a powerful deterrent.

The nonofficial retirement age for Politburo Standing Committee members is 68. Xi will be 69 when the party's next national congress is held in 2022. If he follows the custom, Xi will need to step down as the party's general secretary then.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang appears at the Chinese Communist Party's national congress in October 2017. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

Here lies the paradox. While having sidelined Premier Li Keqiang for the past five years, Li is two years younger than Xi and will be 67 when the next national congress rolls around. The nightmare scenario for Xi is for Li to replace him as the party's general secretary in 2022 and to then go about canceling Xi's policies one by one.

A little more than five years ago, Li, as the rising star of the Communist Youth League faction, was regarded as the most likely candidate to become the party's next general secretary.

Foiling such a possibility is the hidden aim of Xi's move lift the presidential term limit.

Even if Xi fails in his bid to restore the post of party chairman, he will be able to preside over the party's next national congress in 2022 as the almighty general secretary and bask in the glow of his "new era."

If Xi achieves his goal of becoming chairman at the party's next national congress in 2022, he could reimpose presidential term limits by revising the constitution at the 2023 session of the National People's Congress. This would ensure that no one else has more than two terms as president and reinforce Xi's status as party chairman. 

Xi has already made a sham of the unofficial party retirement age by extending the political career of Wang Qishan, his longtime ally and first anti-corruption czar.

Wang, 69, stepped down as a Politburo Standing Committee member in October. But he has not retired from politics and is expected to assume the post of vice president, in March.

The constitutional revision will also scrap the two five-year term limit on China's vice president. Technically, the next vice president too could stay in office for life, making this post more powerful than before.

In the case that Wang does become China's next vice president, all eyes will be on who Xi grooms as Wang's successor as vice president.

The candidates will probably rise from the Zhejiang faction, made up of Xi's former subordinates in the province. The Zhejiang faction forms the core of Xi's political group.

Chen Min'er, Chongqing's top official, and Li Qiang, Shanghai's top official, are two of Xi's close aides and are members of the faction. Both are 57.

Chen Min'er, left, and Li Qiang are potential candidates to someday succeed Wang Qishan. (Photos by Akira Kodaka)

"Given his current momentum, Xi can do anything he wants," said a relatively liberal party source. "He is really formidable. He might even conceive a way to restore the post of party chairman without waiting for the party's next national congress in 2022."

Deng introduced the presidential term limit to prevent a dictatorship. Even if Xi currently has no intention to become a dictator, this could change with time.

Here is another matter to consider: Many of Xi's close aides lack experience in central government and apparently lack the nerve to say a definitive "no" to the leader. 

Now that he has declared the dawn of his era, Xi will come under increased scrutiny from both within and outside the party.

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