This article was first published in China Change website on February 28, 2018
We don’t know what Xi Jinping was expecting when the proposed removal of the term limit for state chairman was announced on February 25 — but he was wrong if he was expecting that the news would be received like a beam of light from the sky, eliciting awe and relief, as depicted in a recent CCTV propaganda video glorifying Xi as the father figure of the people and the country.
Xi and his loyalists seem to have been stung by the shock and ridicule — and sometimes the pointed silence — coming from Chinese social media. The censors clamped down fast and heavily. An explainer in People’s Daily a few hours after the announcement summarized ten “major changes” proposed by the Party, except for the one change that everyone was talking about: the removal of term limits. It was tucked away in a long succession of empty rhetoric towards the end of the piece.
From Monday to Wednesday, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held the Third Plenum of the 19th Party Congress. Its communique, approved and published on Wednesday, made no mention of the proposed constitutional amendments.
Meanwhile, several sources reported that Xi was angered that Xinhua first broke the news about the proposed constitutional changes in English and highlighted the abolition of term limits. Reports said that an editor was fired, and leaders at Xinhua were forced to make self-criticisms.
Meanwhile, human rights lawyers received warnings from lawyers associations, Justice Bureaus, as well as police that they should not talk about the removal of term limits, and by all indications they have been silent.
Chen Xiaoping, a journalist with a legal background who hosts a show at Mingjing Media, reported that he belongs to a WeChat group of constitutional scholars from two of China’s most prominent universities — Peking and Tsinghua — and “the chat group has fallen into a dead silence since the proposed constitutional amendments were announced.” He reminisced how, in 1982, the last time China’s constitution was amended, People’s Daily called for a public discussion four months before the law was passed. Well, that was then, and the amendment was to limit the chairman’s term, a corrective after Mao Zedong’s brutal lifetime rule.
In the internet age in 2018, however, China is unable to have an open and candid debate about a change that will have monumental consequences for everyone in China, and indeed the world. Some, however, have spoken out, and a sampling of their reactions is featured below.
Li Datong (李大同) is a 66-year-old, well known journalist and editor in Beijing. A reporter with the official newspaper China Youth Daily during the student democracy protest in 1989, he collected over 1,000 signatures of journalists calling for a dialogue with the authorities. In 1995 he founded “Freezing Point”, a cutting-edge current affairs and investigative reporting section in China Youth Daily. The publication of “Freezing Point” was cancelled in 2005 by the Central Propaganda Department for “commenting recklessly on current politics.”
Li responded to the proposed abolition of term limits by urging the 55 People’s Representatives from Beijing municipality in the National People’s Congress to vote no to the proposed abolition of term limits: “The standard for procedural justice is that once a game starts, participants should abide by the pre-established rules to the maximum extent. Unilaterally changing the rules is unacceptable. In order to prevent the strong from changing the rules for their own benefit — for instance, breaking the rule on tenure limits — those who change the rules should abide by the pre-established rules, while new participants can use the new rules.”
Li Yinhe (李银河), a sociologist known for her study of sex, wrote, in response to the question “Professor Li, what do you think?”: “Perhaps you’re afraid that because the topic is sensitive, you don’t want to directly say it — so I’ll guess that your question must be about the Central Committee’s proposal. I think that bringing back the system of lifetime rule is not going to work. It’s a reversal of history and takes China back to the Mao era. Yet the National People’s Congress will very likely pass it unanimously. Because they’re not truly elected representatives of the people, they won’t represent the people in casting votes, and they’ll vote as the leader wants them to.”
Wang Ying (王瑛), a former private equity fund manager who has spoken out on political topics in recent years: “I am citizen of the People’s Republic of China, Wang Ying. I hold that China’s realization of a republic is an ideal reached after 100 years of blood and struggle, and that it is also the commitment of the governing party. The February 25, 2018 announcement of the Chinese Communist Party regarding an amendment to the 14th Article of the Constitution — that is, the proposal to abolish the term limit on the position of state chairman — is a thoroughgoing betrayal, a departure, and a reversal. I know that there’s nothing you people won’t dare do, and that you can pass it with a unanimous vote, and can guarantee that the votes will be unanimous, and that the words of a regular person are of no use. Yet, I am a citizen of China, I don’t plan to emigrate, and this is my ancestral land! If I didn’t even register my objection to this, I would have no human dignity. I have no control over what happens to this proposal, but I need to give myself a reason to live on. I publicly protest this retrograde ‘proposal,’ and I protest turning the will of the so-called party into the will of the nation, flagrantly writing it directly into the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China.
Zhang Qianfan, professor of constitutional law at Peking University, penned a commentary for the Financial Times’ Chinese edition: “Currently, China does not have a politically neutral institution of power, like a court, to tell us what can and cannot be amended [in the Constitution]. Nevertheless, everyone has a set of scales of justice in their own hearts, and the people are the ultimate interpreters and deciders on the Constitution. Whether it’s amending the Constitution, writing a Constitution, or establishing laws, the most important thing is to win the hearts of the people. The four previous constitutional amendments had different emphases, but they were ultimately about constantly improving it, thus they comported with the tide of history and won the widespread support of the people. On the other hand, Chinese history amply demonstrates that violating a long-held consensus on the Constitution held by the Chinese people, as well as the overall trend of constitutional government in global civilization — even if it appears to be supported by the people, but does not enjoy genuine social support — will in the end not stand the test of time.”
The June 4 student leaders Wang Dan (王丹) and Wuer Kaixi (吾尔开希), along with those involved in the political reforms of the 1980s, including Yan Jiaqi (严家祺), Wang Juntao (王军涛), Su Xiaokang (苏晓康), the widow of Fang Lizhi (方励之), Li Shuxian (李淑贤), published a statement. It says, in part: “The whole of human history, including the 5,000 years of China’s history, shows that lifetime rule of a nation’s top leader cannot be separated from tyrannical government. It will with certainty bring calamity to the people. In the arduous process of attempting to avoid this disaster, humanity gradually began to form the ideal of democratic, constitutional governance, with different countries establishing actual constitutional democracies. The Chinese people have already struggled for over 100 years to implement a constitutional democracy, in order to avoid the disaster of tyranny and dictatorship. […]
“We call upon overseas Chinese to use any variety of means to oppose Xi Jinping setting himself up as a dictator-for-life as China’s head of state. This is an opportunity to mark a turning point in the growth and establishment of Chinese civil society. Let us work together for the future of a rule-of-law constitutional democracy in China, for the freedom, equality, rights, and happiness of the Chinese people, and for fairness and justice in Chinese society!”