It is the strongest sign yet that Xi intends to hold on to power, potentially taking China back toward one-man rule.
“It means as long as Xi is alive and the Communist Party is in power, then Xi Jinping will be the most powerful person in China,” said Bill Bishop, author of the influential Sinocism newsletter. And Xi will be a more powerful leader than any of his predecessors, going back decades, he added.
The potential significance of Xi’s continuing rule goes well beyond China itself. As his country strives to take a more assertive role in international affairs, the rest of the world — including the United States — will be dealing with a confident president unchallenged at home.
The timing of the announcement emphasized how unusual it is. The Communist Party’s Central Committee is to begin three days of meetings Monday, and typically such a major change in policy would be made public during the session. On top of that, there had been no leaks ahead of time.
The news “confirms that Xi’s hold to power is sufficiently strong for him to insist on something unwanted by the establishment but desired by himself,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London and the author of a book about Xi.
In that sense Xi is reminding China, and everyone else, that he will be calling the shots for years to come. And he will join such leaders as Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey in seemingly having a lock on power.
Xi’s ambition is no secret. Since he was named leader in 2012, he has moved quickly to consolidate power and crush dissent. This has happened at a time when countries including the Philippines and Hungary have seen the rise of brusque, hard-edged leaders. But Xi has a greater platform than any of them, leading the nation with the largest population and second-largest economy.
At a Communist Party congress in October, his signature political theory — “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era” — was enshrined in China’s constitution. He started his second five-year term with no clear successor.
“The stage was set with the addition of Xi Thought at the 19th Party Congress,” Bishop said. Now, in addition to asserting his control over the party, Xi is bending the government to his will, Bishop said, “to accommodate him as leader for life.”
Veteran political analysts were still shocked by Sunday’s announcement, casting the news as something of an epochal shift — back.
“It’s unprecedented since the inception of the Communist Party of China, and it even goes beyond the Mao era,” said Wu Qiang, a Beijing-based political analyst.
Mao Zedong was chairman of the Communist Party from before its accession to power in 1949 until his death in 1976, though he held an official government position for just a decade. Among his most prominent successors was Deng Xiaoping, who was the country’s paramount leader from 1978 until 1989.
“I think the course of Chinese politics will change for sure,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor at a party newspaper in Beijing who is now a writer and researcher. “If a lifelong tenure was to be made possible, we will go back to the time of Mao.”
China’s rules on term limits were written into the 1982 constitution, when Deng was in power, in an effort to head off the type of cult of personality that Mao once commanded.
Xi is not Mao — not yet, anyway — but scrapping term limits shows a striking ability to assert his will over the system.
“For years, rumors have persisted that Xi Jinping wanted to stay in office past his term, but now we have direct proof,” said Jude Blanchette, a Beijing-based expert on Chinese politics at the Conference Board research group.
“Unfortunately, this means that China — like the Soviet Union before it — has been unable to solve the issue of institutionalized succession. The potential ramifications for the world are huge.”
Luna Lin in Guangzhou and Amber Ziye Wang in Beijing contributed to this report.