In late January, as leaders of the Chinese Communist Party met behind closed doors to discuss changes to China’s Constitution, Yu Wensheng, a prominent human rights lawyer, decided to offer some suggestions. In a letter published online on Jan. 18, he called for a series of reforms that included open presidential elections.
Mr. Yu was taken into custody the next day. Police detained him as he left his Beijing apartment building to walk his 13-year-old son to school. Two weeks later, he was charged “inciting subversion of state power,” an offense that carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. He’s almost certain to be convicted, given that China has one of the highest conviction rates in the world.
As Yu awaits his trial in an unknown location – his wife says she thinks he’s in a detention center in the eastern city of Xuzhou – the Communist Party on Sunday proposed its own constitutional reforms. They include the abolishment of presidential term limits, a change that would allow President Xi Jinping to remain in power indefinitely. Election reform will have to wait.
The amendment – whose ratification by the party-controlled legislature next week is as certain as Yu’s conviction – upends three decades of efforts in China to restrict how long top leaders can hold office. Mr. Xi already serves as the party’s general secretary and the military chief, positions with no term limits, making the Constitution the only institutional obstacle that stands in the way of him staying in power past 2023.
The bold move reinforces Xi’s position as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. It also signals the end of a period of collective leadership that has dominated elite politics in China for much of the past three decades – a period that many Western observers predicted would inevitably lead to democracy and rule of law. Instead, Xi appears determined to impose one-man rule as he seeks to restore China to what he considers its rightful place on the international stage.
“We're seeing the death of collective leadership,” says Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the author of a 2015 book about Xi. “Xi Jinping has become a sort of emperor for life.”
Xi’s concentration of power has been years in the making. After becoming chairman of the Communist Party in 2012, he quickly got to work establishing himself as the chairman of everything. One of his first moves was to put himself in charge of a number of important policy-setting committees, known as “leading small groups,” that weigh in on issues ranging from cybersecurity to relations with Taiwan.
The opaque committees have supplanted large sections of the government bureaucracy. Most notably, they have allowed Xi to assume much of the responsibility for China’s economy, traditionally held by the premier, the country’s highest administrative position. And with the help of a sweeping anticorruption campaign launched shortly after he came to power, Xi has been able to sideline potential rivals.
Until this week, the most obvious sign of Xi’s intent to stay in office past two five-year terms came during the Communist Party Congress in October, when he broke with precedent by choosing not to designate an obvious successor. He instead used the Congress to enshrine his official doctrine, “Xi Jinping Thought,” into the party constitution, a move that made clear his belief that he is uniquely capable of leading China into a new era. That narrative has been reiterated by state propaganda, which has started to call Xi lingxiu, a reverential term for a leader that was also used for Mao.
Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, is careful to point out that he doesn’t think Xi will become another Mao, whose cult of personality remains fresh in the minds of many Chinese. But he does warn that Xi’s power grab harks back to a darker time, when the fate of China was largely in the hands of a single man.
“That doesn't mean that Xi Jinping doesn't have his own group of handpicked officials whom he trusts,” says Mr. McGregor, who wrote a book about elite Chinese politics published in 2010. “Many of those people are likely exceptionally skilled bureaucrats and policymakers, but the circle of trust seems to be much narrower.”
Political scientists say that the consequences of such an approach to decision making are substantial: from the repression of critical views to diminished checks and balances. “This is a dangerous proposition for running such a complex country as China,” Dr. Lam says. “Even Xi Jinping’s most trusted advisers will only tell him what he wants to hear.”
The Mao era, with all its violence and chaos, is an extreme example of what that kind of political environment can lead to. Preventing the rise of another Mao-like figure and the power struggle that followed his death are why Chinese leaders embraced collective leadership and norms of succession in the first place.
Those changes started with Deng Xiaoping, who asserted himself as China's “paramount leader” in the late 1970s but encouraged the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s top leadership, to rule by consensus throughout the 1980s. Mr. Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, continued the practice by establishing himself as “first among equals.” He also became the first leader to step down after serving two terms as president. Hu Jintao, who came next, kept the traditions going. He handed over the party chair to Xi in 2012 and the presidency in 2013.
China’s term limits and collective leadership weren’t perfect – Mr. Jiang, for example, lingered in power for an additional year by retaining control of the Central Military Commission – but they did help help solve one of the biggest puzzles faced by authoritarian governments the world over: the peaceful transfer of power. Now that Xi has decided to make his own rules, it’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen when he finally does step down.
“It’s dangerous when there aren’t any rules left that give other people a shot at power or that tell you when to end your own time in power,” says Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University who focuses on China. “It potentially destabilizes the system, not only for the succession after Xi Jinping, but down the road even after that.”
Despite the risks, Dr. Nathan says, a succession crisis is likely years away. Xi, who is 64 years old, isn’t going to give up power anytime soon. And now that term limits are a thing of the past, he could even be in power still when Yu is freed.