BEIJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 26:  Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the 86th INTERPOL General Assembly at Beijing National Convention Center on September 26, 2017 in Beijing, China.  The General Assembly, themed 'Connecting Police for a Safer World',  will take place in Beijing from September 26-29. (Photo by Lintao Zhang - Pool/Getty Images)
China to drop presidential term limits
01:37 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Chinese state-media has been offering a full-throated defense of recent constitutional changes

Dropping term limits, critics say, clears the way for President Xi Jinping to serve indefinitely

Hong Kong CNN  — 

China’s top newspaper has defended a move to drop presidential term limits, refuting allegations that it clears the way for Xi Jinping to rule the country indefinitely.

In a commentary Thursday, the state-run People’s Daily defended the constitutional change as an “important move.”

“This amendment does not mean changing the retirement system for party and national leaders, and does not mean a life-long term system for leading officials,” it said.

The editorial comes after criticism both outside and inside China of the move, which comes after years of speculation Xi would seek to buck tradition and remain in power after his two five-year presidential terms were up.

“Removing term limits does not mean that Xi will necessarily stay in for a third term, but it is hard to see who would have the audacity to challenge Xi should he decide to stay on for a third term,” Margaret Lewis, a professor of law and Chinese constitutional expert at Seton Hall University.

“In the current political climate, even a tacit challenge to Xi’s power is fraught with risk.”

Decorative plates and cups featuring images of Chinese President Xi Jinping are seen in front of a plate featuring late communist leader Mao Zedong (top L) at a souvenir store next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing on February 27, 2018.
China's propaganda machine kicked into overdrive on February 27 to defend the Communist Party's move to scrap term limits for President Xi Jinping as critics on social media again defied censorship attempts. The country has shocked many observers by proposing a constitutional amendment to end the two-term limit for presidents, giving Xi a clear path to rule the world's second largest economy for life. / AFP PHOTO / GREG BAKER        (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
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01:53 - Source: CNN

Propaganda push

The People’s Daily commentary is the latest salvo in an intense propaganda and censorship campaign launched by the central government following Sunday’s announcement.

Dropping constitutional term-limits was first reported by the English-language version of state news agency Xinhua, with a Chinese version released hours later. This was a break with tradition, with important reports almost always coming out first in Chinese.

According to Hong Kong media reports, top officials at the news agency have since been punished over this “serious error.”

The negative reaction to the news also seems to have come as something of a surprise. After an initial flurry of criticism online, widespread censorship was imposed, with banned terms including “immortality,” “ascend the throne” and even the letter n.

Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, said the government likely feared that “n” was referring to the number of terms of office, as in a mathematical equation n > 2.

Censors are also using a sophisticated new tool – optical character recognition, or OCR – to scan photos sent in popular messaging platform WeChat, pulling them if they contain “bad” words or phrases, according to a new report from the Sans Internet Storm Center.

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01:01 - Source: CNN

Criticism

Reports in defense of the abolition of term limits have also been published in state media, including in the nationalistic tabloid the Global Times, which accused Western media of “bad-mouthing China in their usual and various ways.”

“The biggest reason for all this is that the rise of China has reached a critical point where some Westerners cannot psychologically bear it any longer,” the paper said. “They wish to see misfortune befall the country. Even if it might hurt their own interests, they are willing to see China crumble first.”

In an open letter Monday to Beijing’s delegates to the National People’s Congress, the rubber-stamp parliament tasked with approving the constitutional changes later this month, respected Chinese journalist Li Datong urged them to vote against it.

“(The introduction of term limits) was the highest and most effective legal restriction preventing personal dictatorship and personal domination of the Party and the government,” he wrote, according to a translation by China Media Project.

“Removing term limitations on national leaders will subject us to the ridicule of the civilized nations of the world. It means moving backward into history, and planting the seed once again of chaos in China, causing untold damage.”

People walk past a poster of Chinese President Xi Jinping beside a street in Beijing on February 26, 2018.

Retirement rules

Before Sunday’s announcement, it was widely expected Xi would remain technically in charge even if another person took the presidency.

His real power flows from his role as General Secretary of the Communist Party – which does not have term limits – and previous leaders have wielded serious power from behind the scenes, without official titles.

The People’s Daily commentary pointed to the Party constitution, which states “cadres no longer fit to continue working due to old age or poor health” should retire.

“It is a system designed to accord with the national condition and ensure long-term peace and stability for the party and the country,” Thursday’s commentary said.

There is an unwritten rule that senior Party official retire after age 68.

There was intense speculation in October – during a major Party meeting to announce a new leadership team – that 69-year-old Wang Qishan, one of Xi’s closest allies and head of his much-vaunted anti-corruption drive, would remain on the Standing Committee, the Party’s top body.

While Wang did step down, he has not retired from politics, retaining his seat in the national legislature. He is widely expected to be made vice president later this year, after that role also had its constitutional term limits removed.

At the October meeting, Xi also did not name an obvious successor, increasing speculation he intends to rule beyond 2022.