The Washington-based Li went further, warning that removing the presidential limit had “alienated critical contituencies whose power Xi may be underestimating”.
“The political establishment, while certainly composed of some ‘yes-men’ willing to do the president’s bidding, is by no means monolithic. Sooner or later, some political elites may stand up for their belief in the institutional norms of the Deng era,” he warned.
Chinese liberals have been smarting from Xi’s crackdown, since 2013, against open discussion, human rights and media freedom.
A darker scenario could see political rivals read Xi’s move as ‘game on’ for a return to an era of vicious power struggles, Li wrote.
So has Xi just taken his greatest political risk?
Chinese politics is opaque, and suppression of dissent under Xi is firm. Next week’s sitting of the annual rubber-stamp parliament will almost certainly vote in favour of a change that has already been decided by the Communist Party’s central decision-making group.
But even at the Central Committee’s January meeting, opinions were split on the reform, Reuters reported this week, citing unnamed sources.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop played a dead bat to the issue, saying “any changes to the constitution are a matter for China” and that “President Xi is a very effective leader”.
But within China, other evidence of pushback was there from the moment the news broke.
This is not how smooth-running communist propaganda usually works. A newsflash in English – not Chinese – by the official Xinhua agency blurted out, in one abrupt sentence, that the two-term limit would be removed from the constitution.
The statement, confirming the worst fears of Chinese liberals, spread rapidly, grabbing worldwide attention and leading to an eruption of dissent on Chinese social media, before the censoring software kicked in.
The two journalists in the international translation department of Xinhua who wrote the newsflash have since been sacked, Hong Kong’s Apple Daily reported. The head of Xinhua was reportedly made to write a self-criticism for the “serious political mistake”.
Such is the sensitivity of the news, official party newspapers and television bulletins were almost silent on the presidential limits being lifted on Monday, burying brief mentions in stories about other mundane constitutional reform.
But an open letter from prominent former journalist Li Datong, calling for the move to be voted down by Beijing delegates next week, broke through the censor’s shackles on social media messaging service WeChat. It was circulated sideways as an image to avoid word-filtering software.
Solidarity facing ‘tests’
Deng’s landmark political reform had been made in the wake of the “great suffering of the Cultural Revolution” to prevent dictatorship, the letter said, and removing it would “sow the seeds of turmoil in China”.
In an anxious editorial, the patriotic foreign affairs newspaper Global Times warned “the solidarity of the Chinese people will face tests” in the days to come.
Official party newspaper People’s Daily appeared by week’s end to be responding to the push-back: removing the limits on the president’s term brought the position into line with that of general secretary of the party and head of the military (also held by Xi), the paper reported. This guaranteed the “trinity” leadership of China which was needed to ensure long-term stability, People’s Daily wrote.
Changing provisions on the president’s term would not change the retirement system for “leading cadres” of the party or state, nor mean life-long tenure of leading cadres not fit for office, the newspaper went on. Ill health or age could still prompt retirement. It was unclear if “leading cadres”, a term often broadly applied, also applied to Xi.
Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese Studies at King’s College in London, says despite the backlash on social media, a majority in China like a leader who looks strong.
“The top leadership around Xi is now in a position where they either sink or swim with him. They are closely associated with all he has done, from the anti-corruption struggle to the leadership changes at the 19th Party Congress last year and now this change,” he says.
“It is hard to dissent with a leader who himself has tied his destiny to the achievement of a great, powerful country with its status in the world restored. That is precisely what he looks like he is achieving.”
Brown says if Xi can maintain a stable China that benefits the world, he will be able to stay president until he is 100.
“The question is whether such a centralised one-man system can really achieve this,” says Brown.
Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says she “wouldn’t be surprised if there are silent opponents who will become more vocal and take action if Xi stumbles”.
Glaser is among those who question why Xi has moved so early, at the start of his second term, to consolidate power: “It doesn’t reveal what he plans to do with the enormous power that he is amassing.”
The Brookings Institution’s Li sees the timing as highly calculated: Xi seizing the moment “at the pinnacle of accrued political capital to avoid becoming a lame duck”.
There may be more surprises in store at next week’s National People’s Congress. State media said the congress would see an “unprecedented scale of reform in party and state”, with a shakeup of ministries expected.
The meeting will confirm new appointments to key government roles, such as the head of the central bank. Former anti-corruption chief Wang Qishan, 69, who stepped down from the Politburo Standing Committee in October, is expected to become vice-president and also China’s top diplomat. Wang will steer China’s difficult relationship with the US.
Liu He, despatched to the US this week to try to avert a looming trade war, is tipped to become vice-premier in charge of the financial sector. He recently spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and is said to support further market reform within China’s state-controlled economic system.
When Xi took office in 2012, pundits had wrongly tipped him as a liberal reformer. As sweeping crackdowns were unleashed on rights advocates, lawyers and the media, apparently driven by fear of Western interference that was perceived to have brought down the Soviet Union, some persisted with the hope that Xi would tackle a reform agenda in his second term.
He needed to prepare the groundwork by completing the anti-corruption crackdown and cleaning up the People’s Liberation Army, the theory went.
But the vision for a “new era” of Chinese socialism outlined by Xi at the twice-a-decade meeting of the Communist Party in October instead showed an intent to strengthen the role of the party across state, education and business.
The nuts and bolts of how this era will work under “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, the wordy political doctrine to be written into the Chinese constitution, may be revealed in the week to come.
Kirsty Needham is China Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age
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