When China created headlines globally with the news of the Communist Party of China's (CPC) proposal to end the existing presidential terms a fortnight ago, the news was hardly a surprise to political trend watchers, it was just a question of when.
The seeds of this eventual constitutional amendment were sowed in the 19th Party Congress, convened once every five years, held in October 2017 when President Xi Jinping didn't anoint a successor despite entering his second/final term in office. For months leading up to the Party Congress, speculations were rife on who would be nominated as the next leader of the party by the nearly 3,000 delegates gathered in Beijing for a week-long deliberation session.
When the names for the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee - the highest decision-making body of the CPC - were declared, it became evident that Xi would stay on for much longer as all the men in the committee weren't young enough to lead the country post 2022. It was noteworthy that Xi's name made way into the Constitution, an honour earlier held only by two leaders - Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
Since time immemorial, every time China undergoes the daunting task of having to decide on a successor, it leads to chaos. It won't be an exaggeration to say that succession has been one of the main themes of internal conflict in Chinese politics.
The Republic of China was formed in the aftermath of the collapse of the Qing dynasty, becoming the first republic in Asia, in 1912. The prevailing idea of succession from then till the end of Mao Zedong days was "to serve the people until death" on the same lines as that of monarchy.
The People's Republic of China came to being on October 1, 1949, with the CPC consolidating all political power. Even then, the question of succession remained a major political issue blowing out of proportion from time to time.
Mao, during his lifetime, chose two successors, both of whom died under unnatural circumstances, without ever making it to the top. After Mao's demise, China saw a huge succession crisis followed by a coup d'etat.
In the following years, Deng Xiaoping also faced a similar succession crisis. Both his chosen successors had to be removed from their positions. However, Deng Xiaoping, aware of the damages caused by succession conflicts, amended the Constitution in 1982 with major reforms and also created a new system called the Gedai Zhiding.
In this unique process, the current leader, instead of choosing his immediate successor, anoints his successor's successor. This was done to remove the dominance of the existing leader, and to allow the anointed successor to govern without fear of conflict or allegiance hampering his actions.
Adhering to this convention, Deng Xiaoping who could have been in office till whenever he desired, didn't do so but handed over the reins to future leaders. Similarly, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao exited office right at the end of their two terms.
Xi Jinping rules
Since his coming to power in 2012, Xi Jinping has been on a mission to reform the party and the country, or in plain terms to establish the supremacy of the party over the state. Though it is contrary to the amendments brought in by Deng Xiaoping in which he wanted to clearly demarcate powers between the party and the state in the aftermath of the chaos caused by the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976. Decades later, Xi Jinping has been going on with an objective to make the party stronger. With the massive anti-corruption campaigns, he has been portraying himself as a visionary leader who is purging the party of self-serving politicians.
Many political leaders have been expelled from the party and public offices.
In the 18th Party Congress held in 2012, Hu Jintao named two leaders namely Hu Chunhua and Sun Zhengcai to lead China as President and Premier respectively after Xi Jinping's tenure ends in 2022. However, Sun was charged with corruption late last year and has been expelled from the party. Hu was replaced from his position as the head of the party's Guangdong region by Xi Jinping's protege, Li Xi, a couple of months ago.
The proposal to amend the Constitution was passed by the National People's Congress, the rubber stamp Parliament, on March 11. In the last two weeks, all political discussions within China revolved around this new development and it was divided into two major factions. On the one side, there were those who were drawing parallels between Mao and Xi, fearing China becoming a totalitarian state from its status quo of authoritarianism. Some were even comparing Xi's anti-corruption drive to the infamous Cultural Revolution of the 1960s which served as a platform for Mao to get rid of his political adversaries and drove the country into a state of complete disarray for more than a decade. Due to massive social media discussions, certain phrases critical or satirical towards Xi and his new bid were banned from the internet.
On the other side, there were those who believe that Xi's extended governance would provide a consistent leadership push to the vision and reform agenda which he has been working on for the last five years. Many were also of the opinion that to get China out of the middle income trap, it needs long-term policies provided by long-term rule which would be addressed easily with this new amendment coupled with the administration of one of China's strongest leaders, second only to Mao.
With the official declaration today, it has indeed become an interesting period in the history of Chinese politics, but only time which would ascertain which faction was more accurate, for politics hardly ever is black and white.