In A Fortnight: Xi’s Other Amendments

Members of the CPC Politburo Standing Committee vote on proposed amendments to the PRC Constitution

A terse February 25 article by Xinhua News Agency sent shockwaves around the world with its announcement that the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) Central Committee had proposed amending the PRC Constitution to remove term limits for the country’s president and vice-president (Xinhua, February 25). The proposed amendment would remove the only remaining legal impediment to PRC President and CPC Chairman Xi Jinping remaining in office beyond the end of his term in 2022, and seems to presage a return to one-man rule of the kind not seen in China since the heyday of Mao Zedong. (a theme explored in greater depth by Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam in the second article of this issue of China Brief).

But mostly lost in the uproar over the end of collective rule was the fact that the proposed amendment is but one of a larger package of amendments proposed by the Central Committee—21 in total—that, as a whole, comprise the largest rewriting of the PRC Constitution since its wholesale revision in 1982. Although the PRC Constitution nominally functions as the country’s foundational legal text, the relative ease with which it is revised to reflect changing political priorities—and the inability of China’s Supreme People’s Court to exercise proper judicial review—means that, in practice, revisions can be also understood as declarative statements of political authority and intent. Thus, together with the end of term limits, the proposed revisions both signal the extent to which Xi Jinping has consolidated power, and trace the outlines of the policy program he intends to pursue, at home and abroad. [1]

A New Era

The most symbolically notable of the proposed changes is the first, which would add “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, the unwieldy name given to Xi Jinping’s policy agenda, to the list of political concepts enshrined in the Constitution. This move reflects a similar revision of the CPC Constitution adopted at the CPC’s 19th National Congress in October of last year (China Brief, November 10, 2017), and makes Xi Jinping only the third Chinese leader mentioned by name in the PRC Constitution—“Mao Zedong Thought” and “Deng Xiaoping Theory” are also similarly honored. None of Xi’s four immediate predecessors—Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao—achieved this feat, although the proposed amendment also would write into the Constitution “scientific development”, the name for Hu Jintao’s body of political thought. This is perhaps a conciliatory sop to the former president and his political allies, who have seen their power severely curtailed under Xi (China Brief, May 11, 2016).

The fifth of the proposed amendments also confirms the importance of the Communist Party as the instrument by which Xi Jinping Thought is to be enacted; it changes the second line of the Constitution’s first article from “the socialist system is the basic system of the People’s Republic of China” to “the leadership of the Communist Party of China is the most essential feature of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. [2]

The National Supervisory Committee

By far the most extensive proposed changes to the PRC Constitution are those that elaborate the structure and functions of the National Supervisory Committee (NSC), a new government body meant to institutionalize and expand Xi Jinping’s ongoing anticorruption campaign (SCMP, November 17, 2017). Fully half of the proposed amendments concern the NSC in one form or another, among them one that specifies that the NSC will report to and be supervised by the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s highest legislature. The distinction is significant because it places the NSC on an equal footing with the State Council, which, although it is singled out in the Constitution as “the highest organ of State administration”, also reports to the NPC.

Since the State Council runs China’s government ministries, the proposed amendment confirms previous reports that the new NSC will be empowered to supervise government workers in addition to Communist Party members, a dramatic expansion in the scope of Xi’s anticorruption campaign, which had, until now, targeted only Party members. It is also noteworthy that one of the amendments specifically strips the State Council of the supervisory function the NSC will now exercise.

China Looks Abroad

Two of the proposed amendments are relevant to how China frames its role in the world, and seek to leverage overseas Chinese communities in support of a program of national renewal and restoration. One would write into the constitution the term “community of common destiny”, also sometimes referred to as the “community of shared future” (命运共同体), an amorphous concept that places China at the center of a harmonious global community of peace and prosperity, in implicit contrast with the United States’ hegemonic, self-interested control of the present international system (China Brief, February 26, 2018). The community of common destiny is also tightly linked with the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s premier international initiative.

The other proposed amendment adds the phrase “patriots devoted to the great renewal of the Chinese race” to the list of groups to be consolidated in a “united front” under the “leadership of the Communist Party of China”. The “great renewal of the Chinese race” is the phrase that, along with “the Chinese Dream”, Xi Jinping has used most frequently to encapsulate his political agenda. This revision refers to the duty of overseas Chinese communities, among them Chinese students studying in foreign universities, to ensure their work contributes to Xi’s restoration of Chinese greatness. Accordingly, the phrase “great renewal of the Chinese race” has been used with increasing frequency in propaganda work targeting these communities, including events at which Chinese students in American colleges study and discuss Xi Jinping’s speeches with PRC embassy staff (people.cn, January 2).

Loyalty to the Core

The central, overriding message of the amendments is one of loyalty to Xi Jinping as the core of the Communist Party, and to his agenda. This is underscored by the ninth proposed amendment, which would require all “state workers” to swear allegiance to the constitution. As the purpose of the other 20 amendments is to underscore the centrality and importance of Xi Jinping to the Chinese system, this new requirement would, in effect, force the whole of China’s enormous bureaucratic apparatus to swear personal loyalty to Xi Jinping. Although this form of one-man domination differs from that of Mao Zedong in important ways, it is little wonder that well informed observers have been quick to draw the historical parallel between the two men.

“In A Fortnight” is a bi-weekly column by Matt Schrader, the editor of the Jamestown China Brief. Follow him on Twitter @tombschrader.

Notes

[1] The author wishes to thank Thomas Kellog, Executive Director of Georgetown Law Asia, and Professor Tiancheng Wang, President of the Institute for China’s Democratic Transition, for their insights in the preparation of this article.

[2] Translation is the author’s, and should not be considered authoritative. An official English translation of the proposed amendments has yet to be released.