There was an announcement here Sunday afternoon about, among other matters, a proposal by the Central Committee of China’s Communist Party that would remove the current two-term limit on the presidency and vice-presidency by changing China’s State Constitution.
That the Central Committee is going to be discussing the matter of extending the current political tenure of President Xi Jinping is very significant. There have been rumors of this possibility for some time now, and there were even some predictions that that’s what Xi and his allies were after. It’s very likely this amendment to the current Constitution will be approved and forwarded for ratification by the National People’s Congress when the latter convenes next month.
That’s all major news.
But why was the news announcement botched?
Usually, such an important announcement would be made on the CCTV main evening news at 7 pm [新闻联播]—possibly with some advance notice leaking out a half hour or so before broadcast. Not this time: the proposal about the term-limit being amended came in a Xinhua News Agency announcement in English a bit after 4 pm; then Phoenix News [风华]—Chinese-language media that operates as a semi-official platform for Beijing-- spread it about, along with the complete text of the announcement in Chinese shortly thereafter. It wasn’t until over an hour later that Xinhua put out their version--identical to the Phoenix announcement but late and clearly uncoordinated.
It all might have been simply a cock-up. With so many political matters in Beijing being rushed in recent days, an error might be understandable.
There are a number of possible explanations.
It could have been caused by the preparations for the Party plenum—that is, because of a meeting of the very same Central Committee that authored the announcement that’s been squeezed in between the end of the Chinese New Year period and the “Two Sessions” (which includes the National People’s Congress) scheduled for the first week of March. There’s not a lot of coordination about these days in some political circles, because so much time and energy is being spent setting up for those major events.
Perhaps it’s also because while the holiday celebrations were supposed to be occurring, many officials appear to have been called to Beijing or their provincial capitals for consultations. After all, local policymakers and cadres have had little time off in the past half-year, given the Party Congress, its run-up and aftermath, and the pressure brought by Beijing to implement the various directives that had been decided upon. To get everyone to sit down and talk about and tentatively ratify major changes wouldn’t be easy, and just getting people focused on the discussions about the plenum in particular must have been like moving mountains.
Or it might be because the Party plenum was being presented in some circles as a conclave about economic planning, but now seems to have shifted rather abruptly to politics and ideology—and that change may have been a surprise to some delegates, because the general expectation as expressed in Party media was that the plenum would focus on handling local debt and financial risk. The official announcement from Xinhua focuses entirely on amendments to the State Constitution, and seems to indicate that’s what the plenum will be discussing. Confusion in some media quarters about what to say about what’s going to be said isn’t unreasonable.
But what if the bungled news announcement—because that’s what it was--is a sign of something more than just overwork and awkward coordination?
One doesn’t have to believe in elaborate conspiracies to posit the possibility that there may be some comrades who think amending the State Constitution isn’t the best idea—or should even be a priority right now. Perhaps the advance warning of those plans to outsiders—and the original English-language notice was about abolishing term limits and nothing else—was meant to disrupt a carefully-timed and tempered statement from Party Central, which after all was left scrambling to get the actual official announcement up. There’s also somewhat less supervision in China’s State media of news items when they’re presented in a foreign language, and it may well be that the way the announcement was made was a signal to audiences (especially those on social media here who tend to understand English far better than their elders) that not everyone is thrilled with the proposal to make their Chinese President a Putin.*
Policymakers and cadres here know what’s at stake.
For hardliners and conservatives, Xi sticking around is the strategy that would make China great again. The State Constitution isn’t the only obstacle to that goal, but they and Xi clearly see it as something that needs to be adapted to their ends. Anything that secures a longer tenure for their guy makes political sense.
But for others—reformers in various positions and places who think that there should be less centralization so that they can get on with innovation and economic growth in their own local way—the waiting game for a leader who understands and supports their views now threatens to be interminable. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they got played by Xi: They were expecting a plenum focusing on their (primarily economic and financial) problems and they’ll have to reverse field quickly if they want to be heard. It's unlikely they were happy to discover that, and that's maybe why the news announcement went sideways.
Some of this is speculation. But what's happening with the initiative to amend isn’t a power struggle in China; it’s about priorities and about implementing different visions. Xi thinks he needs more time, and he’ll likely get at least Constitutional authorisation for that. But the bizarre nature of today’s announcement may well signal that those officials who have a different view from Xi understand that the clock is ticking for them as well.
*And the ongoing drumbeat about some journalists not toeing the Party line is probably relevant in this regard as well. See, for one recent example, http://njrb.njdaily.cn/njrb/html/2018-02/20/content_490631.htm