China’s top paper says Xi Jinping won’t necessarily serve for life

China’s top newspaper has defended a move to drop presidential term limits, refuting allegations that it clears the way for Xi Jinping to rule the country indefinitely.

In a commentary Thursday, the state-run People’s Daily defended the constitutional change as an “important move.”

“This amendment does not mean changing the retirement system for party and national leaders, and does not mean a life-long term system for leading officials,” it said.

The editorial comes after criticism both outside and inside China of the move, which comes after years of speculation Xi would seek to buck tradition and remain in power after his two five-year presidential terms were up.

“Removing term limits does not mean that Xi will necessarily stay in for a third term, but it is hard to see who would have the audacity to challenge Xi should he decide to stay on for a third term,” Margaret Lewis, a professor of law and Chinese constitutional expert at Seton Hall University.

“In the current political climate, even a tacit challenge to Xi’s power is fraught with risk.”

Propaganda push

The People’s Daily commentary is the latest salvo in an intense propaganda and censorship campaign launched by the central government following Sunday’s announcement.

Dropping constitutional term-limits was first reported by the English-language version of state news agency Xinhua, with a Chinese version released hours later. This was a break with tradition, with important reports almost always coming out first in Chinese.

According to Hong Kong media reports, top officials at the news agency have since been punished over this “serious error.”

The negative reaction to the news also seems to have come as something of a surprise. After an initial flurry of criticism online, widespread censorship was imposed, with banned terms including “immortality,” “ascend the throne” and even the letter n.

Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, said the government likely feared that “n” was referring to the number of terms of office, as in a mathematical equation n > 2.

Censors are also using a sophisticated new tool — optical character recognition, or OCR — to scan photos sent in popular messaging platform WeChat, pulling them if they contain “bad” words or phrases, according to a new report from the Sans Internet Storm Center.


Reports in defense of the abolition of term limits have also been published in state media, including in the nationalistic tabloid the Global Times, which accused Western media of “bad-mouthing China in their usual and various ways.”

“The biggest reason for all this is that the rise of China has reached a critical point where some Westerners cannot psychologically bear it any longer,” the paper said. “They wish to see misfortune befall the country. Even if it might hurt their own interests, they are willing to see China crumble first.”

In an open letter Monday to Beijing’s delegates to the National People’s Congress, the rubber-stamp parliament tasked with approving the constitutional changes later this month, respected Chinese journalist Li Datong urged them to vote against it.

“(The introduction of term limits) was the highest and most effective legal restriction preventing personal dictatorship and personal domination of the Party and the government,” he wrote, according to a translation by China Media Project.

“Removing term limitations on national leaders will subject us to the ridicule of the civilized nations of the world. It means moving backward into history, and planting the seed once again of chaos in China, causing untold damage.”

Retirement rules

Before Sunday’s announcement, it was widely expected Xi would remain technically in charge even if another person took the presidency.

His real power flows from his role as General Secretary of the Communist Party — which does not have term limits — and previous leaders have wielded serious power from behind the scenes, without official titles.

The People’s Daily commentary pointed to the Party constitution, which states “cadres no longer fit to continue working due to old age or poor health” should retire.

“It is a system designed to accord with the national condition and ensure long-term peace and stability for the party and the country,” Thursday’s commentary said.

There is an unwritten rule that senior Party official retire after age 68.

There was intense speculation in October — during a major Party meeting to announce a new leadership team — that 69-year-old Wang Qishan, one of Xi’s closest allies and head of his much-vaunted anti-corruption drive, would remain on the Standing Committee, the Party’s top body.

While Wang did step down, he has not retired from politics, retaining his seat in the national legislature. He is widely expected to be made vice president later this year after that role also had its constitutional term limits removed.

At the October meeting, Xi also did not name an obvious successor, increasing speculation he intends to rule beyond 2022.