BEIJING • Come 2022, China's President Xi Jinping would be very powerful as party general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) if he decides to break age-limit rules in order to stay on in these positions.
But before then, he is changing the Constitution during the annual parliamentary session that starts tomorrow to abolish term limits on the state presidency so that he can also remain as head of state indefinitely.
That Mr Xi might want to stay on as top leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was apparent when he did not put in place any likely successor in the party's apex body, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), at last October's national party congress. Mr Xi himself had been promoted to the PSC in 2007 to prepare him to take over the reins of power as general secretary in 2012.
His predecessor, Mr Hu Jintao, stepped down as general secretary and CMC chairman in 2012, at the age of 69, and as president in 2013, after two five-year terms in accordance with the Constitution, which states that the president and vice-president should serve no more than two terms. Mr Hu's predecessor Jiang Zemin also stepped down as president after two terms.
When Mr Xi did not name a successor last year, it had been speculated that the 64-year-old leader would seek to stay on as general secretary and CMC chairman in 2022, breaking the unwritten age limit of 68 for senior leaders of the party.
However, it was unclear at the time whether he might also try to stay on as state president as it would mean making the drastic move of changing the Constitution. In any case, the office of the president is not a strong one and Mr Xi would be already immensely powerful as general secretary and CMC chairman.
Then came the news last weekend that the CCP central committee had proposed abolishing the term limits in the Constitution, which will pave the way for Mr Xi to stay on as president for life.
Chinese official media defended the move, with an editorial in the party-run Global Times stating that over the past two decades "a trinity of leadership" consisting of the general secretary, president and chairman of the CMC "has taken shape and proven to be effective".
It added that removing the two-term limit on the presidency "can help maintain the trinity system and improve the institution of leadership" of the party and the state.
However, noted Professor Steve Tsang of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London: "The only practical advantage of being able to stay on as President would be scope for him to go on state visits post-2023."
The question is: Is it worth the consequences of the move in order to gain such trappings of power? For the consequences can be dire.
Internationally, it will make more foreign governments aware that for all the changes China has undergone, its political system remains unchanged, said Prof Tsang. "It could get some to hold back a bit in seeking to work with China."
Domestically, the scope for internal debates will be reduced further and the risk of mistakes increased significantly, warned Prof Tsang.
Writing in The New York Times, Professor Mary Gallagher of the University of Michigan said term limits, introduced in the 1982 Constitution partly in response to the excesses of Mao Zedong's strongman rule, led to a shift from the rule of one man to the rule of the party that brought political stability and economic development to China.
Lifting the limits, she wrote, makes the rules of the game more unpredictable.
Worried about the consequences, former journalist Li Datong wrote an open letter to Beijing delegates to the NPC urging them to vote against the amendment.
He said the term limits were "the highest and most effective legal restriction preventing personal dictatorship and personal domination of the party and government".
Removing them, he warned, "means moving backward into history and planting the seed of chaos once again in China, causing untold damage".
That Mr Xi might want to stay on as top leader of the Chinese Communist Party was apparent when he did not put in place any likely successor in the party's apex body, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, at last October's national party congress.