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China Communist Party proposes removing presidential term limits, paving way for Xi to lead beyond 2023

Neil Connor
Xi Jinping could remain as head of state after 2023 under new rules - AFP

China's ruling Communist Party is seeking to remove a restriction on the president serving 10 years, paving the way for Xi Jinping to remain in office beyond 2023 and perhaps for life.

The official Xinhua news agency said on Sunday that the Party had proposed to "remove the expression" that the president and vice-president “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms” from the country’s constitution.

The move would set in motion a more authoritarian future for China under Mr Xi, and is being described by experts as confirmation that Beijing has no interest in further opening up or delivering real democracy.

Steven Tsang, the director of the China Institute at SOAS, University of London told The Telegraph: "Democratization was never on the agenda under the Communist Party, which is a consultative Leninist system, one that fundamentally rejects liberal democracy, despite its claim that China is democratic ‘with Chinese characteristics’.

"It should now be so obvious that anyone who still cannot see it must be politically blind."

Mr Xi had already cemented his position as the country's strongest leader since Mao Tse-tung at last October's 19th Party Congress, when he began his second term as Chinese leader.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, third from left, waves near Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, third from right, as they walk in with other members of the Chinese Politburo Beijing's at the Great Hall of the People Credit: AP

The 64-year-old leader has been steadily eroding the collective model of leadership set up in China since the Cultural Revolution and the emergence of the reform era under Deng Xiaoping.

Mr Xi's presidency has also seen the return of a personality cult, and the targeting of political rivals and critics through a corruption crackdown and a wider war on human rights.

While some observers had previously predicted that Mr Xi might seek to break with precedent and rule beyond two terms - which would usually have ended in 2023 - many were expressing shock at the nature of Sunday's announcement.

Prof Tsang said many experts had expected Mr Xi to remain as China's 'behind the scenes' leader, but give up the role of president.

He could have continued as General Secretary of the Communist Party and chief of China’s military, leaving a ceremonial president in place. 

Presidents Li Xiannian (1983 to 1988) and Yang Shangkun (1988 to 1993) were largely symbolic figures before Jiang Zemin assumed power.

"The implication is that the vanity dimension seems to stand out," said Prof Tsang. 

"He wants to be formally received and treated as state president wherever he will travel post 2022."

Mr Xi is nine months younger than Russian leader Vladimir Putin and will be 69 in 2023. Chairman Mao ruled China until 1976, when he died aged 82.

Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao - Mr Xi's two predecessors - both served two five-year terms, but there had been signs that China's current ruler might break with tradition.

No clear successor emerged at the party congress with the unveiling of a new seven-member Standing Committee, China's top ruling body and cabinet.

Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat in China and author of CEO China: The Rise of Xi Jinping, said Beijing's decision to signal Mr Xi's continued rule suggested China was determined to be "the winner" on the global stage.

"I wouldn't interpret this as too much a sign of strength, more one further indication that the Xi leadership will do anything - repeat anything - to ensure that China's moment up to 2021 of finally being restored to its status as a great power is completely assured," he told The Telegraph.

"So leadership changes and things like that will be treated with absolute micro management, and the elite positions are unlikely to shift much.

"This is just a sign of how high the stakes are. With an ailing and declining US, and Europe just muddling on, China is determined finally to be a winner. And you don't change the jockey on a winning horse half way through a race."

Additional reporting by Christine Wei