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Chinese President Xi Jinping has not lined up a successor as is customary, raising speculation that he would seek to stay in power beyond a second term. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)
China People's Congress 2018

China paves way for Xi to hold on to power beyond second term

Proposed constitutional amendment scraps 10-year limit for presidents

TETSUSHI TAKAHASHI, Nikkei China bureau chief | China

BEIJING -- The Communist Party of China announced a proposal Sunday to abolish a constitutional provision limiting a president's time in office to two terms, setting the stage for Xi Jinping to stay on beyond 2023.

Xi, who will be elected to his second five-year term as China's president in March, also doubles as the general secretary of the Communist Party, the organization's top post. The party's charter does not set any term limit for general secretary, but the constitution prescribes no more than two consecutive terms for a president.

Xi will be 69 when the next Communist Party Congress convenes in 2022. Officials who have reached the age of 68 or older at the time of the congress customarily retire. But when Xi was re-anointed as general secretary during the previous congress last October, a clear heir-apparent was never designated.

"Obstacles [to term limits] are being removed at the institutional level," said a Communist Party insider.

Xi has evidently been working diligently to clear the way for a third presidential term. Those efforts appeared to begin in earnest in July 2017, when anti-graft authorities placed the boss of the Chinese metropolis of Chongqing, Sun Zhengcai, under investigation.

Before his fall from grace, Sun was seen as a youthful front-runner of the so-called sixth generation of post-revolution political leaders expected to assume their place in the government's top echelons when Xi's fifth generation fades from power. In short, Sun was a top candidate to succeed Xi.

With Sun out of the way, the only remaining contenders for Xi's job were Sun's replacement in Chongqing, Chen Min'er, and Guangdong Province's former party chief Hu Chunhua.

But defying most expectations, both Chen and Hu were left out of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party's top ruling body, during the leadership reshuffle at October's congress. That was a clear message by Xi that he had not yet decided on a successor.

This consolidation of power recalls the clout held by Chairman Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China who launched the tumultuous Cultural Revolution during the 1960s and '70s. Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader who followed Mao, set about to revitalize China by opening up the country and instituting economic reforms. Deng also put into place the collective leadership system where no one person would be allowed to accumulate enough power to spark another misstep like the Cultural Revolution.

A mandated transition of power every 10 years was a core part of this system. A successor is also normally settled on five years before the president steps down to avoid a power struggle. Deng's framework is meant to prevent despots, but the proposed constitutional amendment would render it all but a dead letter.

Wang Qishan, Xi's 69-year-old right-hand man who has directed China's aggressive anti-corruption campaign, remained faithful to the informal 68-year age limit and retired from the Politburo Standing Committee last October. But Wang will likely be appointed to a key government post when China convenes its annual legislative session in March.

The return of Wang Qishan to a key government post would provide cover for Xi in seeking to stay on beyond the customary retirement age.   © Reuters

Observers believe such an exception to the age limit would provide additional cover for Xi to remain as party leader when the next Communist Party Congress comes around in 2022.

Furthermore, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported Sunday that the Communist Party also proposed including "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era" in the state constitution, after previously adding it to the Communist Party charter. That would mark the first time that a leader has had his philosophy enshrined in the constitution since Deng and Mao.

As long as there is no definite timeline for Xi's stay in office, nobody is seen opposing him. While the lack of contrary opinions would help to speed the decision-making process, it could also make the government slow to fix policies that go awry.

Of course, even if the constitution is amended, that would be no guarantee that Xi remains as president. The Chinese president has pledged a "moderately prosperous society" by the year 2020. But the nation's economic indicators have softened of late, putting that target in doubt. Failure on that front could give Xi's political foes new life.

Additional reporting by Nikkei staff writer Oki Nagai in Beijing.

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