What you need to know
Xi's move to abolish two-term limits on the presidency signals the end of the Reform Era and a deepening of Party reform of the State that will ultimately lead to a weaker China.
It has been a frantic week in Chinese politics. Not only was it revealed that Xi Jinping is proposing to remove two-term presidential limits, but he also brought forward the Third Plenary Session from the second half of 2018 to February, before the Two Sessions this month.
For all the concerns about Xi consolidating power, the President of the People’s Republic of China is essentially a meaningless title – a point missed by most in the media this week.
Both moves have left political scientists scratching their heads. And now the Third Plenum communique, centered on deepening Party reforms over state institutions, is signalling an even stronger governance restructure.
For all the concerns about Xi consolidating power, the President of the People’s Republic of China is essentially a meaningless title – a point missed by most in the media this week. Executive power in China is in the hands of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China.
One argument as to why Xi has removed the two-term limit from the Chinese constitution is that by doing so he aims to make clear that the office of President is subservient to the Party. An unlimited presidency could also give Xi a convenient institutional office to retire into while overseeing the rest of his political projects.
If so, this move is fundamentally about weakening an institution that had been progressively strengthened since its reinstatement in the constitution in 1982. On this reading, the message Xi is sending is that Party institutions dominate State institutions. If so, the story is not really the erosion of old State institutions like the presidential term limits, but rather the formation of new Party institutions like the National Supervision Commission.
The reason that such drastic reform of the State is possible, and announced early in the Third Plenum 2018, is because Xi has so successfully taken control of the Party. In a democracy, an equivalent achievement would be to control both houses of parliament. This is the political mandate that Xi has been building towards, and this coming 18-month period will be where he sketches out and fills in his true policy agenda.
A stronger executive means a weaker state, and a weaker state means weaker political and economic benefits for citizens.
The Deng era reforms had allowed for a slow institutionalization of Chinese political norms, one of which was a growing separation of Party and State. But the message from the 2018 Third Plenum is that this era of separation is over.
The Third Plenum is usually in the first Autumn of a Central Committee’s five-year administration – in other words after about one year into the Committee. The meeting is the administration’s chance to establish a policy agenda for the coming five-year period, and to lay out the broad projects it wishes to embark on and the frameworks it will use to achieve them.
If the message of the 19th Party Congress was that the Reform Era is over, the message from this year’s Third Plenum is all about "governance reform" (in other words, Party reform of the State).
This stands in stark contrast to the 2013 Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress, which talked about the "decisive role of the market". Such rhetoric was by parts exhilarating and confusing and had foreign business in China speculating on just how much economic reform this would mean. Five years on, the 2018 Third Plenum has shifted focus to Party strengthening and a centralization of power, framed as governance reform.
Minxin Pei has written that the realists were right and the liberals wrong: greater levels of international trade do not make democracies, and globalization is not the end of history.
The shift away from economic reform towards recentralizing power potentially gives China hawks cause for celebration. Despite appearances, the centralization of power around Xi Jinping will only lead to a weakened China, a slower-growth China, and a China with less influence on the world stage.
In the coming four years, we can expect a governance project that amalgamates some State Council ministries into super ministries and creates greater devolution to provincial, prefectural and township governance. But the Third Plenum’s call for deepening Party and State institutional reforms is not an advance in state governance, but rather a regression to Party politics.
Ultimately, this Party strengthening is likely to mean a weakened China, and a China that is now economically going nowhere. A stronger executive means a weaker state, and a weaker state means weaker political and economic benefits for citizens.
The real losers from these moves are neither the advocates of Western liberalism, nor Chinese political elites who must further cede power to Xi Jinping. The real losers are those Chinese poor who were already marginalized from the 40-year growth model and look to be again appropriated for a centralized political end.
This is the first Third Plenum of the post-reform era, and for the first time since 1978, it does not focus on an economic goal. The poor of China deserve better than a post-reform era that fails to deliver a macroeconomic plan but instead concentrates power within an ever-smaller circle in Zhongnanhai.
The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Policy Forum – Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis, opinion, debate, and discussion.
TNL Editor: Morley J Weston