There are two interpretations of what the Chinese constitution stands for. One interpretation conceptualizes the Chinese constitution as something not akin to the constitution found in the West. For example, the articles within the constitution can be changed according to circumstances and the needs of the Party. The Constitution was most recently changed to remove the two terms limit on the Chinese presidency and vice presidency. This effectively means that the Chinese President and Vice President have their terms for life theoretically. This was voted into effect during the 13th National People’s Congress (one of China’s ‘twin parliaments’ or lianghui). The constitution was also changed to create a super-agency that would oversee disciplinary, corruption and graft matters.

The other interpretation insists that it is closer to the Western interpretation of constitutional law. The fact that the Presidency and Vice Presidency posts have removed their term limits meant that the constitution is there to serve the needs of the party rather than as untouchable sacred items. The limits were placed in the constitution by former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping who feared the return of chaos when there is unbridled power concentrated on a single person such as Mao’s time with the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution. The constitutional changes to the term limits came 14 years after 2004 when the constitution was last changed to enhance the protection of human rights and private ownership of property was inserted into it.

The constitutional changes was based on political consideration of continuity of rule for Chinese President Xi Jinping so that he is able to complete the political reforms of disciplining the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), carry on with rooting out corruption, consolidating his power by removing those in his way, and completing his ‘China Dream’ of making China a developed country and economy. Then there is the all-important priority of seeing the Chinese Communist Party through its 100th year anniversary in 2049 in great strides, something nursed as a hope by the elite leaders. Therefore, in this sense, Party priorities were important political considerations as they are in legal considerations when it comes to the amendment of the Constitution. The trinity of roles (party secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese President of the Chinese state and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission) combined into one makes Xi the most powerful leader since Mao. Even Mao had his political opponents. Xi had recently removed the Gang of Six (the last of whom was Sun Zhengcai) that remained the remnants of powerful resistance to his rule.

To seasoned Sinologists, the Constitution is a reference document rather than the published enshrined tenets and rights of the Party. The combined trinity of role means the Chinese President will inevitably have a stronger hand in China’s foreign diplomacy. There could be a kind single-mindedness to his method of leadership. It would also mean less leeway for foreign powers to play the different factions within the Chinese Communist Party to extract concessions. It also signals the end to Dengist leadership succession style where successors were appointed successively in advance to ensure political stability, as in the case of Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji as well as Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao and the failed pair Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang.

The scope for pluralism is reduced by the appointment as China firms up its foreign policy direction surgically to maximize the interests of the Chinese state and its Communist Party. In terms of foreign economic policy, the Xi administration’s most important project is still the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, formerly known as the One Belt One Road or OBOR). The BRI is an ambitious economic foreign policy scheme which will require tremendous negotiations with many sovereign states. Xi has also clocked the largest number of countries visited in his presidency in addition to hosting a large number of high profile forums like the Belt and Road Forum. These are indications of a more robust foreign policy. The centralization of elite leadership developments in China also mean that the process is less transparent and will keep foreign analysts and intelligence services guessing about China’s strategic ambiguities.

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Dr.Lim Tai-wei
Tai Wei Lim is a Senior Lecturer at SIM University (UniSIM) and a Research Fellow Adj. at the National University of Singapore (NUS) East Asian Institute. His research interests are in the energy histories of China and Japan and modern/contemporary East Asian history in general. He graduated from Cornell University with a PhD in history and teaches the world history course in UniSIM. He also conducts policy research on contemporary Sino-Japanese relations, popular culture and the soft power influence of the creative industries in Japan as well as Sino-Hong Kong relations. His latest co-authored book is Contextualizing Occupy Central in contemporary Hong Kong published by Imperial College Press in 2015.

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