China is clearing the way for President Xi Jinping to stay on indefinitely.
Should China abolish presidential term limits?
The ruling Communist Party made the surprise proposal last week to end the two-term, ten-year limit on the presidency and vice-presidency, abolishing a decades-long check on power.
If the constitutional amendment is passed by the National People's Congress – the largely rubber-stamp national legislature – during their annual meetings this month, Xi could stay on as president after his second term ends in 2023.
The move breaks with the political norms for leadership transition that many thought had been institutionalized in recent years.
The term limits were introduced decades earlier by Deng Xiaoping, the leader credited with economic reforms that opened China to the rest of the world.
While critics say scrapping term limits would force China back to its imperial history, others argue it would make China's governance more effective.
Here's the backstory:
When were term limits enacted?
A two-term constitutional limit for the president and vice president was installed in 1982 – not long after the death of Mao Zedong, the revolutionary founder of the People's Republic of China.
Mao had crafted a national cult of personality around himself, which many blamed for the chaos of the Cultural Revolution: a period of mass political upheaval.
The 1982 constitution, written while Deng was in power, intended to establish institutional stability by preventing an individual from amassing enough power to become a Mao-like figure.
Why is the government proposing this amendment?
The amendment, made public on February 25, would strike out the line in the constitution that says the president and vice-president "shall serve no more than two consecutive terms."
Many believe the bold proposal is a bid by Xi to crystallize his power after an aggressive anti-corruption campaign that wiped out many political rivals, and to consolidate his efforts to turn China into a global superpower by 2050.
A commentary in the state-run People's Daily newspaper argued that this and other changes to the constitution would "better express the will of the people, embody the advantages of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and meet the demands of modernizing the national governance system and governance capacity."
Why is this controversial?
Abolishing term limits would theoretically allow Xi to stay in the presidency for the rest of his life, undermining the idea of a system of collective leadership, and potentially causing China to fall back under one-man rule.
China has already seen its power increasingly centralized under Xi, within the government, party and military. During last fall's 19th Communist Party Congress – the five-yearly gathering which marks leadership changes – he avoided naming a clear successor and enshrined the 14-point political theory named "Xi Jinping Thought" in the constitution.
Many have expressed fears that Xi's prolonged rule will plunge the country into greater authoritarianism, the likes of which haven't been seen since the Mao era, following the precedent set by Vladimir Putin in Russia.
How have people responded to the proposal?
News of the proposed amendment was met with surprise – and backlash – as people navigated online censors to express their opinions.
Chinese netizens were blocked from using phrases referring to Xi's longevity, or even from writing "I disagree" on social media sites such as Weibo, China's equivalent to Twitter. Some resorted to posting memes to convey dissent, such as repurposed images of Winnie the Pooh, a character often used to reference Xi.
Given the rare levels of public opposition, state media quickly rolled out stories about the "heartfelt support" for the proposal from cadres and masses across China.