China Changes the Rules of the Game: A Look Back to the Past 70 Years of the CCP

The Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee proposed to remove the term limits on the presidency and vice presidency of China, according to Xinhua Agency, the official press agency of China. This proposal will be discussed in the third plenary session of the 19th CPC Central Committee starting from today to Feb 28th.

The announcement has taken over headlines worldwide, sparking off speculations of the possibility of lifelong presidency. It is necessary to take a look at the complex of China top power structure and its constant change since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Party ruling the Country

The Communist Party of China is the founding and the sole ruling party of China, with around 89 million party members, according to Statistical Communique of the Communist Party of China 2016.

The constitution of CPC states that the highest body of CPC is the National Congress, convened every fifth year. While the National Congress is not in session, the Central Committee is the highest body, but since the body usually meets once a year, the Political Bureau of CPC of 25 members, and its standing committee of 7 members who meet at least once a week, have become the highest policy-making body in effect.

The ranking member of the standing committee of CPC politburo, therefore, turns out to be the party’s highest leader and holds the offices of General Secretary, Chairman of the Central Military Commission and State President. Through these posts, the party leader becomes the country’s paramount leader. The current paramount leader is Xi Jinping, who was first elected at the 18th National Congress in 2013 and re-elected at the 19th National Congress in 2017.

While CPC constitution restricts State President to two consecutive terms, there’s no specific term limit on General Secretary or Chairman of the Central Military Commission. As a result, although in theory, the three positions should belong to the same person, which is often referred as Trinity System, occasions exist that the paramount leader chooses not to retire from all three posts.

For instance, Jiang Zeming, the third General Secretary of CPC, had served two consecutive terms and retired from the post in 2002, but he remained to hold the office of the Central Military Commission until 2004.

The potential inconsistency in leadership contributes to CPC’s newest constitution amendment proposal. “To remove the two-term limit of the Chinese president can help maintain the trinity system and improve the institution of the leadership of the CPC and the nation,” says Global Times, a Chinese tabloid newspaper under the auspices of CPC official newspaper, People’s Daily.

Implications of a Lifelong Tenure

Pictures of Xi Jinping (left) and Mao Zedong (right). Photo by Reuters.

In fact, a national leader of lifelong tenure is not new to China. The founder and the first president of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, maintained his power as the highest national leader from the establishment of the country in 1949 till his death in 1976. During the reign of Mao, he established such a high sense of absolute authority and personal worship that no one dared to confront even when his decisions were extreme.

It was not until 1982, after Deng Xiaoping, the second significant national leader and designer of China’s reform and open up, repeatedly appealing for abolishing the system of life tenure in leading posts, that the two-term restriction of the presidency was put down in the constitution.

Since 1989, after Deng Xiaoping retired, Jiang Zeming seized the central power of the third generation of China’s central leading collective. China has witnessed three power transfers.

Especially the most recent time, Hu Jintao, the fourth General Secretary of CPC, retired from all three posts at one time and handed the central power to Xi Jinping. Xinhua Agency reported this  transfer as “a stable and smooth leadership transition of historical significance that shows CPC maturity.”

Xi Jinping was supposed to retire in 2023 after two consecutive terms under the original constitution restriction. However, he did not follow the custom of picking up a successor in his second term starting from 2017. He did assemble a new Politburo Standing Committee, but out of the six members of his pick, there was not a younger leader who would be groomed as heir apparent, which was the first time in a generation.

Together with Xi’s one-man ruling style, the lack of apparent successor immediately led to outside’s suspect that Xi plans to stay in power over two consecutive terms. Now that CPC officially proposes to remove the presidential limit, Xi has scraped all the institutional obstacles in his way.
“The change doesn’t mean that the Chinese president will have a lifelong tenure,” according to a Global Times editorial. “There has been a wide consensus within and outside the CPC that since the reform and opening-up, China, led by the CPC, has succeeded and will continue to be successful in solving the power shifts of the CPC and the nation in a law-abiding and orderly manner.”

Nevertheless, it is Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the reform and opening-up, who pointed out the significance of legal restrictions of leading terms. “Abolishing lifelong tenure is a revolution that paves way for young talents,” said Deng Xiaoping at the conference of CPC Politburo in 1982, “Without it, there’s no hope in the civilization and there’s even risk of the downfall of our party and country.”

Editor: Seungyeon
Reporter: Evelyn
Copyeditor: Siya
Content Manager: Aegean

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