China’s largely ceremonial parliament opens its annual session Monday, with delegates poised to endorse controversial measures that will allow the country’s leader Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely.
Nearly 3,000 legislators from around the country will attend the two-week gathering of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing — a highly prescriptive show of unity and enthusiasm that will see key legislative and personnel decisions approved.
But it is President Xi who will dominate this year’s proceedings, as delegates are expected to rubber stamp far-reaching changes to China’s constitution that will hand Xi greater power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, Communist China’s founding father.
Here are four things to watch over the next two weeks:
The Communist Party on February 25 announced a series of proposed amendments to the country’s 1982 constitution, nominally China’s supreme law.
The one that’s caught most attention — and controversy — is the removal of presidential term limits, which would break a custom of leadership change once every decade and pave the way for the 64-year-old Xi to stay in power indefinitely.
Xi, already seen as the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, also heads the party and the military — two posts more powerful than the presidency with no term limits. The official explanation for the constitutional move has been to align the three positions.
“It is conducive to safeguarding the authority as well as the centralized and unified leadership of the Communist Party Central Committee with Xi Jinping at the core,” NPC spokesman Zhang Yesui told reporters Sunday in response to CNN’s question. “It is conducive to strengthening and improving China’s leadership system.”
However, a public backlash against Xi’s perceived move toward lifelong dictatorship has emerged despite government propaganda and strict censorship.
While the approval of the amendments is not in doubt, analysts will be looking to see if there’s any “no” votes or abstaining ballots cast for signs of opposition to Xi’s power grab (though the authorities have already said that reporters will not be allowed in during the vote on March 11.)
Anti-graft czar resurfaces
In China’s power hierarchy, the ceremonial vice presidency is often an afterthought. But its likely new occupant — to be revealed on March 17 — may shake up politics both at home and abroad.
Many analysts see growing signs of Wang Qishan, China’s fearsome former anti-corruption czar, becoming the new vice president and being given major responsibilities that may include China-US relations.
Wang, 69, was one of Xi’s most trusted lieutenants, responsible for carrying out the president’s signature campaign of cracking down on rampant graft in the party. He and his team brought down more than a million officials in five years.
Until last year, Wang was a member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), the seven-man ruling body that sits atop China’s power structure. There were strong rumors that he would stay on despite the party’s unwritten mandatory retirement age of 68.
While Wang didn’t make it into the new PBSC, his retirement seemed in question when his name was spotted on the list of this year’s NPC delegates.
It’s highly unlikely that Wang has resurfaced to attend the rubber-stamp legislature. If his vice presidency and portfolio were confirmed, it would create an unprecedented scenario — a powerful Chinese leader without PBSC membership.
Since the constitutional amendment to rid of presidential term limits would also apply to the vice presidency, Xi and Wang could potentially join hands to rule China for years to come.
Fight against corruption intensifies
Two other changes will be endorsed by delegates during the NPC — the creation of an all-powerful national anti-corruption agency and the passage of a national supervision law. Analysts view these steps as equally significant as the removal of term limits in their impact on Chinese politics.
The National Supervision Commission (NSC) will have a comparable status to the cabinet, the supreme court and the top prosecutor’s office, consolidating existing graft-busting powers vested in various government agencies.
Although it will share office space and personnel with the party’s disciplinary arm — once headed by Wang — the NSC can target anyone who exercises public authority, instead of just Communist Party members, providing Xi with further power to crush any political disloyalty.
To drive the point home, state-run Xinhua news agency published a lengthy article on the NSC last November, explaining: “It is a political organ, rather than an administrative or a judicial organ. When carrying out its duties of supervision, investigation and disposition, it should always treat politics as the top priority.”
New ministers — and ministries
With Xi now the undisputed paramount ruler, Li Keqiang — the country’s No. 2 leader whose premiership is set to be confirmed for a second term — may find his role further diminished, while the president’s protégés and loyalists promoted during the NPC to serve under Li may bypass him and wield outsized power.
One such official may be Liu He, Xi’s top economic advisor who recently visited Washington to address thorny bilateral trade issues. He is a likely new vice premier in charge of the country’s financial policy as well as rocky economic relations between China and the United States under Donald Trump.
Also rumored to be named vice premier is Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, who will continue to oversee foreign affairs. Wang Yi, who reports to Yang, is said to be in line to take over his boss’ current title of state counselor while continuing on as foreign minister.
Another post worth watching is the country’s increasingly influential central banker. Longtime governor Zhou Xiaochuan is set to retire and observers have yet to agree on a name that will replace him.
One major item on this year’s NPC agenda is government agency reform — and there have been strong hints from officials about combining ministries and agencies to strengthen the party’s leadership and improve efficiency.
If past experience is of any indication, it’s time to get ready for more mouthful names like the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China.