In Stratfor's 2018 annual forecast, we noted that "as Xi starts his second term, maintaining his unrivaled authority will be imperative, particularly as a critical period of China's ongoing restructuring begins." Today's announcement to remove two-term limits for China's president, along with the proposal to further enshrine Xi’s ideological theory into the state constitution, conform with that broader trend.
The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on Feb. 25 proposed the removal of consecutive term limits for the President and Vice-President of the People's Republic of China. The decision to remove existing two-term limits from the country's Constitution came just a day before the all-important third plenary session of the Central Committee. Third plenary sessions are rarely held this early — they are normally scheduled a year after the quinquennial Party Congress — and this sitting was announced mere days ahead. The proposal, along with moves to enshrine Chinese President Xi Jinping's Thought (specifically, his Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era) into the state constitution, will be central to the upcoming National People's Congress beginning March 5.
The proposal was highly anticipated, considered by many to be a case of when, not if. The outcomes of the previous 19th Party Congress have, in theory, made Xi Jinping a near-undisputed political leader. Fast-tracking the revision of term limits and further enshrining Xi's Thought into the state constitution are the final pieces of Xi's five-year plan to consolidate political power. These moves could pave the way for Xi to extend his tenure as a state leader beyond 2023. It also likely means that China's previous ten-year political leadership cycle established by Deng Xiaoping is subject to change.
The extension of Xi's authority does not make him invulnerable to challenges or ill fortune.
It is unlikely, however, that Xi will be able to push his agenda without some form of consensus within the Party. Despite Xi's rapid rise through China's "core" leadership, the Communist Party is fraught with intensive checks and balances. Unlike chairman Mao, Xi's personal authority is built on the very existence of the Party's collective leadership, which was established to prevent the return of a great helmsman. This means Xi has to make intense compromises to achieve his ends. On the other side of the equation, China is facing a new set of socio-economic challenges in a world that requires the Communist Party to respond faster and more effectively than previous collective leadership models could manage. Xi's move to consolidate political power is also a reflection of the need by the Communist Party to deal with China's place in an evolving world.
Balanced against Beijing's daunting efforts to lead the country's socio-economic transformation, the process to reshape China's political balance and shore up Xi's authority are no less challenging. Beyond the enormous speculation over whether Xi intends to hold power indefinitely, removing term limits does not change the fact that the president can still fall from favor should circumstances change. Internal and external disruptions could easily erase the support he currently enjoys, bringing largely submerged antagonisms to the surface of intra-Communist Party politics. Moreover, Xi will have fewer excuses than his predecessors did to explain failed policies. If the Chinese economy underperforms or if a foreign policy crisis emerges — such as Taiwan — political strengths can quickly become liabilities, leaving Xi vulnerable.