China’s Constitution Revision prepared and submitted by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to be ratified by China’s 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) in its first plenary session (March, 2018) is dominating the Western press. Before we examine the details of this amendment and its implication, let’s review the history of the constitutional amendments of the U.S. to provide a comparison and discussion.
National Constitution, ratified by the people and/or its representatives, is the document prescribing the structure of the government, the rights of the people and rule base for governance and serving the people. Every country is founded on its Constitution which can be amended as needed by a due process defined in the Constitution. The U.S. declared its independence in 1776 but its Constitution was first written and ratified in 1787 during the Philadelphia Convention. Subsequently to this day, there were 11,539 proposals for amendment but only twenty seven being approved by the Congress. The First twelve (ten of which are the bill of rights defining people’s freedom and rights) were approved by the Congress in 1789 and sent to the States for ratification. By December, 1791, the ten Bills of Rights of people were ratified including freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, bearing arms, security and personal effects, protection from search and seizure, warrant for arrest with due cause, guarantee of proper indictment, speedy public trial with jury, prohibition of double jeopardy and any rights not specified by the constitution and all powers not specifically granted to the government.
The fourteenth amendment (1868) is a significant one offering a clear, simple definition of citizenship with all enjoying equal treatment. The 22nd amendment is also significant concerning the presidency’s term limit. The 27 amendments endured a long debate process till Congress approved them in 1992 for State ratification. To this date, six of 27 have not been ratified by the required number of states; two were closed and four were still pending. This signifies that Constitution Revision is a very serious matter and highly dependent on the procedure requirement in the original Constitution.
China’s Constitution like many others defines the country’s people’s rights and duties, the structure of the State and the government hierarchy including the NPC and its formation and duties. What is different and unique in China’s Constitution is the Chinese style of Communism prescribed as a socialistic economic system with public ownership of the means of production (such as land). Like the U.S. Constitution, China’s Constitution consists of versions of 1975, 1978, 1982 (amended through 2004), 1988,1993, 1999, and 2004 amendments, 2007 resolution on amendments, 2012 revised constitution and the latest 2017 resolution on amending the Constitution yet to be ratified by the 13th NPC this month.
The proposed revision and amendments by the Central Committee of the CCP can be summarized concisely in terms of definition, clarification and energizing the functions and effectiveness of the socialistic political and economic system with Chinese characteristics. The total 21 revisions can be grouped in four categories: 1. Adding words to clarify the direction, method and focus of China’s future development to include Xi’s thoughts and to anticipate new era, emphasize scientific development, and clarify win-win peaceful development under a ‘Human Common Goal’. 2. Adding phrases to sustain reform, achieve Great Rejuvenation (Great Chinese culture and dignity), and cultivate patriotic attitude（e.g. oath on the Constitution to take office), racial and minority harmony, and socialistic values as well as paying attention to environmental improvements. 3. Establishing organizational change by emphasizing law-based (治) rather than system-based (制) governance, giving more power to NPC in election and supervision, restricting NPC representatives and members to serve in administrative or monitoring and supervising roles in other branches of government, empowering NPC to elect the chief of the new monitoring and supervising branch (監察) separated from the executive branch. (Noteworthy point: this branch was uniquely described in China’s founding father, Sun Yat Sen’s Book, Three Principles of People, which has been practiced by KMT under Chiang Kai-Shek till today in Taiwan as a watch dog on the government.)
The revision of Article 79 in China’s Constitution, removing the second sentence in “The term (of President and Vice President) is the same as the NPC’s term. They shall serve no more than two consecutive terms.” Implies that the Chinese leader can serve without term-limit. This has been the focus of the Western Press with numerous articles cautioning the world leaders that they have to deal with a smart and powerful Chinese leader for his life time. However, this implication is highly speculative. We can examine the term limit issue in the U.S. and China’s Constitution and offer a far more rational interpretation and implication analysis.
In the original U.S. Constitution, there was no term limit set on the Presidency. When George Washington resigned after serving his second term, he essentially established a convention that the U.S. President will serve only two terms, eight years. This practice persisted over 152 years till President Franklin Roosevelt, served four terms and died in his 4th term (1933-1947). Roosevelt was a capable President and the U.S. was facing the threat of World War II, the US Congress and the American people supported his Presidency extending to third and fourth term to lead the nation in war. When Roosevelt died in 1947 after the war was ended, the Congress approved the 22nd Amendment to limit the Presidency to two consecutive terms, based on the speculation that the US bi-partisan system may not be able to return to the two-term convention establish by Washington. Of course, such a speculation had no real evidence.
The supreme leader Mao of China served for his entire life (1949-1976 in Power) with great achievement in uniting the nation but also with devastating social programs sunk China in misery. When Deng Xiao Ping emerged as the strong leader (1978-1992) with an agenda for reform and focused economic development, he was the de facto leader till his death even holding no official position from 1982-1992. It was Deng who restored the figure head position of Presidency and divided the power between the party Secretary General and the Premier (head of State Council, the Executive Branch)；all three led by the paramount leader Deng. Deng instrumented the two-term limitation (1982) in order to prevent the formation of a convention of life-long leadership like Chairman Mao. The two -term limit was practiced during Deng’s era (1982-1992) through Hu Yao Bang (1978-1987), Jiang Zemin (1992-2002), Hu Jintao (2002-2012) and Xi Jinping (2012- Present). From Jiang to Xi, they all have had the three positions, General Secretary of CCP, Chairman of the Military Commission (of CCP and National) and the President of China but Xi is the only one now holding all three positions concurrently.
Though the Western press is speculating the removal of the two-term limit on the Presidency as a possible sign for more authoritative power and life-long service for President Xi; personally, I believe that this move may just be Xi’s design to figure out a way to ensure a sustainable law-based governance with smooth transition so that the long-term objectives of China’s national rejuvenation can be accomplished. China’s rapid rise is envied by her neighbors including great powers like the U.S. and Japan targeting China as a security threat. Xi’s past performance adequately demonstrated his ability as a great leader not only for China but also for the world. The Chinese people by and large support his tenure extension beyond second term. One might even draw parallel to Franklin Roosevelt’s term extension discussed above, considering Xi in a critical time with a critical task to fulfill (including the grand scheme of One Belt and One Route, OBOR). The more pressure the other nations are putting on China thwarting her peaceful rise and limiting her leadership in pursuing a ‘Human Common Goal’, the more support the Chinese people and third world nations will offer to Xi demanding his leadership beyond his second term.
President Xi and the NPC have a lot of options and leeway to structure a transition scheme with structure and term limits redefined for the future round of Chinese leaders. One can observe some hints from the detailed revisions presented to the 13th NPC. Focusing on the term limit and making wrong interpretations is missing the mark of assessing China’s Constitution Revision.