by Chris Buckley
BEIJING — Some 200 senior Communist Party officials gathered behind closed doors in January to take up a momentous political decision: whether to abolish presidential term limits and enable Xi Jinping to lead China for a generation.
In a two-day session in Beijing, they bowed to Xi’s wish to hold onto power indefinitely. But a bland communiqué issued afterward made no mention of the weighty decision, which authorities then kept under wraps for more than five weeks.
That meeting of the party’s Central Committee was the culmination of months of secretive discussions that are only now coming to light — and show how Xi maneuvered with stealth, swiftness and guile to rewrite China’s Constitution.
The decision was abruptly announced only last week, days before the annual session of China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress. The delay was apparently an effort to prevent opposition from coalescing before formal approval of the change by the legislature’s nearly 3,000 members.
The Congress is all but certain to approve the change and other constitutional amendments — the first since 2004 — in a vote Sunday, sweeping away a rule that restricts presidents to two five-year terms and has been in the constitution for 35 years. The Congress alone has the power to amend the constitution, by a two-thirds vote, but lawmakers, picked by the party, have always passed proposals presented to them.
Even those who thought they had taken the full measure of Xi’s ambition are surprised by how fast he has moved.
“I always thought Xi would seek to stay for three or four terms, and could even introduce a new presidential system after his terms were finished. But I never thought the constitution would be revised so quickly,” said Wu Wei, a former official who advised Zhao Ziyang, the party leader ousted during the mass protests of 1989 in Tiananmen Square.
“For such a major revision to an important clause of the constitution, the views of the whole public nationwide should have been more broadly sought,” he added, pausing to contain his emotion.
Xi deployed speed, secrecy and intimidation to smother potential opposition inside and outside the party. He swept past the consensus-building conventions that previous leaders used to amend the constitution. He installed loyalists to draft and support the amendments. And he kept the whole process under the tight control of the party, allowing little debate, even internally.
Xi first formally proposed amending the constitution little more than five months ago, at a Sept. 29 meeting of the Politburo, a council of 25 party leaders more powerful than the Central Committee, according to an official account issued at the Congress on Monday.
But he did not immediately raise the possibility of removing the term limit, said a retired official, citing a senior serving official. To avoid being seen as dictating changes, Xi let loyal provincial and city leaders quietly promote the idea in his stead, the retired official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fear of punishment for describing internal discussions.
At that same meeting, the Politburo agreed to purge one of its own members, Sun Zhengcai, who had once been considered a potential successor to Xi, on corruption charges — a warning to other party officials that needed little elaboration.
Previous rounds of constitutional amendments in China took much longer and involved at least the trappings of public discussion.
Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, proposed less significant constitutional changes 15 months before the amendments became law and tolerated some open debate, including forums held by liberal intellectuals. The wording of Hu’s revisions was released to the public nearly three months before lawmakers approved them in March 2004.
By contrast, Xi first announced that he wanted to make constitutional changes in December, without specifying what they would be. The full details of the amendments, including the abolition of his term limit, were released to the public only eight days before the National People’s Congress convened.
Xi kept a tight lid on his machinations. After the Politburo meeting in late September, he entrusted the task of revising the constitution to just three officials: the chairman of the Congress, Zhang Dejiang, and two close allies, Li Zhanshu and Wang Huning, both of whom were elevated last year into the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s top body.
Wang has long been sympathetic to the authoritarian argument that China needs a strongman to maintain social order while pushing through painful policies, such as closing down inefficient factories.
“If somewhere lacks a central authority, or central authority is in decline, the country falls into a state of rupture and turmoil,” he said in an interview published in 1995.
In recent speeches, Xi has echoed that theme, arguing that China faces unprecedented risks and opportunities. “Our party was born under a sense of peril, grew up under a sense of peril and matured under a sense of peril,” he told a meeting of senior officials in December.
Momentum for ending the term limit built in November, when the party began secretly seeking suggestions on possible constitutional changes, according to the official account issued at the Congress. Xi’s allies began an effort to support the change, and in a clue of their effectiveness, the official account said there was “consistent approval for issuing new rules on the term of office of the president.”
Still, Xi needed to win approval for his plan at the January meeting of the Central Committee, and when and how he did so have been the subject of dispute.
Reuters, citing two unnamed sources, has reported that the Central Committee failed to reach a consensus at the January meeting and convened its next meeting earlier than usual.
But four party insiders — two retired officials, a party newspaper editor and a businessman with family links to the leadership — told The New York Times that Xi prevailed in January, essentially confirming the official timeline.
Any committee members with misgivings were unlikely to speak out, given the array of punishment they could face, and party elders who may have once opposed such a move — including Hu and another former president, Jiang Zemin — are too old or too cowed by Xi’s anti-corruption investigations to muster resistance, party insiders said.
Xi gained the Central Committee’s backing for ending the term limit just three months after winning his second term as party leader, his other main title, and before starting his second term as president.
“It demonstrates Xi’s penchant for rule-breaking,” said Christopher K. Johnson, an expert on Chinese elite politics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s slowly, slowly, slowly, and then when no one’s looking, he turns around and does something big. I think it comes back to the political shock and awe that really dates back to his arrival.”
Several experts and former party officials who have met Xi said he appears to be driven to overturn the term limit out of a confluence of confidence and anxiety.
He is confident that he has eliminated potential rivals in the elite and enjoys broad public support after cracking down on corruption. But he is worried that a crisis such as an economic slump or a war over North Korea could weaken his authority, they said.
Even with victory in sight, Xi appears wary of a potential public backlash. Online commentary on ending the term limit has been heavily censored.
After the official Xinhua News Agency first announced the proposal on Twitter, which is blocked in China, the journalist who issued the bulletin in English was punished. A colleague, speaking on condition of anonymity, said officials apparently thought it was too bluntly worded.
Critics said the imperious way in which Xi scored his constitutional coup was a foretaste of how his power could swell into dangerous hubris. Xi demolished a political convention that for decades has helped to shield China from the succession struggles that convulsed politics under earlier leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, they said.
The legislature will go through the motions of debating the constitutional changes, but there is virtually no chance that the hand-picked delegates will oppose them in large numbers when they vote.
On Monday, delegates broke into applause twice when a legislative official read out the proposal to end Xi’s term limit.
"I think we should give Xi 20 years to accomplish the Chinese dream and give us back a strong China,” said Jiao Yun, a Congress delegate from northeast China who is chairman of a coal processing company. “The previous 10-year limit doesn’t mesh with China’s long-term development.”