Sarah Grace Goolden
The National People’s Congress of China voted almost unanimously to abolish the previous two year term limit for the presidency. This controversial amendment to their constitution would allow current president, Xi Jinping, who would have been due to give up his position in 2028, to stay in power for as long as he sees fit, theoretically the rest of his life.
In 1982, China approved a new constitution after Mao Zedong, founder and chairman of the People’s Republic of China, lead the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. The limitation on the president’s term was enacted to restrict the amount of power placed in an individual and prevent a single tyrannical ruler. Now that the term limit has been lifted, it seems like the country has ignored their previous blunders and taken a step back.
The right to criticize the government is largely only available for certain groups of people and even then, allowed only in forums monitored by the government. This guarantees that no matter what the government introduces, the public has no way of fighting back. Giving the people of the country zero input on what happens to them creates room for even more abuse of power. What starts as unturning a law for the president could develop into something bigger, more dangerous and completely out of the citizens’ hands.
The wealthy citizens and members of the Communist Party are given the ability to put their opinion online while ordinary citizens cannot, unless it is produced through a government-licensed publisher. Citizens still have the right to write their views but cannot publish it on their own or present it in a large political gathering.
Jinping is not new to enforcing these kinds of limits on freedom of speech. Several words and phrases have been banned on Weibo, China’s most popular social media site, such as “lifelong control”, “disagree” and any reference to the dystopian novels Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell. This impedes the public from making arguments about the government, eradicating conversation and the possibility of learning and collaborating.
Criticism is essential because it can help the government create laws that benefit the entire country. By denying them this right, China is actually just hurting itself. There is no such thing as a country where everyone is satisfied, but to take away their right to express their dissatisfaction creates a government that cannot grow and change with the ideas of its people. This is especially dangerous when mixed with a lifelong presidency because no new perspectives are introduced and the problems the people of China are currently facing will more than likely continue.
Chinese students at Western universities have rallied in a movement to publicly challenge the removal of a term limit. The movement is united through posters around the world with the phrase “Not My President” and “I disagree.” The posters originated on Twitter by an anti-Xi account consisting of Chinese students in three different continents. The goal is to create a platform for people to speak out against injustice in the name of those who are being censored and cannot.
A lifelong term coupled with the mass erasure of the country’s input is teetering dangerously close to dictatorship and China is right to be worried. Opening the door for Jinping and his successors to stay president for as long as they want seems eerily close to the government dipping their feet into a country ruled by one individual, able to change whatever he sees fit with little fear of the consequences.
Since citizens’ voices are being snuffed, it is the duty of those with free speech to speak out. If we watch the country be forced into a position that the citizens want to fight but cannot, we are equally guilty in the injustice.
Only two delegates out of 2,964 voted against the change. In a comment by parliamentary spokesman Zhang Yesui at a press briefing in early March, the decision was to “strengthen and improve China’s leadership system.” Another justification is the lack of term limits for the party leader and military chairman, which are positions Jinping also fills in addition to being president.
The president is elected by the NPC through majority vote, rather than a democratic process, involving the opinions of citizens. By granting the president the opportunity for a lifelong term, it is speculated that Jinping could accumulate too much power.
It is important to realize that the role of the president in China is not the same as in the United States. Literally translated, Xi Jinping is considered the chairman of the country. His position is not ceremonial, however, like the monarchy in England. Jinping reserves the right to issue orders, ratify treaties, grant pardons, declare war and perform other duties associated with presidency.
There are some responsibilities that he cannot perform, such as vetoing laws. In his current position, even if he serves as president for the rest of his life, Jinping could not rule as dictator as many fear. Absolute power is not concentrated in one position. However, if the government is willing to upturn their constitution for this, it is possible that the president could attain other capabilities and gain absolute control. The fear stems from not unlimited term limits, but the possibility that this act could be the beginning of many.
The biggest question people are asking right now is if Jinping is actually going to serve as China’s president for the rest of his life. He has never claimed that he is going to cling to the position until death; the fear comes from his ability to do so. So far, Jinping has not announced how many terms he plans on fulfilling, but this has not put China’s citizens, or the rest of the world at ease.