“Practically unimportant”? A poor excuse or well-executed sarcasm? — On China’s constitutional amendment removing the limitation on the President’s term of office

Shuai Zhang in response to a previous blog post by Cong-rui Qiao

chinese constitutionThe National Congress of China has recently passed a highly controversial constitutional amendment removing the limitation on the President’s term of office. Consequently, it is no longer limited to two consecutive terms. While some consider this amendment as a step towards dictatorship, many are seemingly trying to interpret it in a more sympathetic way. A very popular discourse regards the change merely as a “practically unimportant” technical fine-tuning. Ironically, this argument is roughly supported by two rival groups. This blog elaborates why neither of these groups is right in labelling such a change as “practically unimportant”, and argues that the constitutional amendment is in fact very important.

The first group consists of “clever minds” who often try to play the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China (CPC) authorities by “helping” comfort Chinese people. Believing it may please the authorities, they try to avoid negative connotations of the amendment by trivialising its relevance and diverting public attention to other issues. Among the typical lines of such argumentation is a pro-government newspaper editorial that interpreted the removal of the term limitation as a technical fine-tuning to strengthen the so-called “three-in-one” leadership system by keeping consistent the terms of office of the three top positions (the head of the CPC, the President of the state, and the supreme commander of the Chinese military forces). Apparently enlightened by “Christian Trinity”, it claimed that China has a “three-in-one” system under which the three positions shall be held by one and the same “Leader”. It thus supported the removal of the limitation on the President’s term of office by arguing that the other two positions do not have such a limitation. However, no such “three-in-one” system ever existed in China; the current situation in which President Xi Jinping, as well as his two predecessors, managed to hold all three positions should be seen as a mere result of political game. Indeed, neither the CPC Charter nor the PRC Constitution prescribes such system, and the three positions can be, and used to be held by either one and the same person or two or three different persons respectively.

Qiao’s blog post repeated and further developed this point by labelling China’s presidency as “ceremonial” and thus arguing that its term of office is “practically unimportant”. However, just because its formal function is ceremonial does not make it unimportant. If so, the position of the emperor during China’s over 2,000 years’ history should also be considered “practically unimportant”, since the Chinese emperor, referred to as a “living ancestor” by historian Ray Huang in his influential masterpiece “1587, a Year of No Significance“, was to a great extent ceremonial as well. So why not put it this way? It is “practically unimportant” whether China is a monarchy or a democracy.

The other major group that advocates this idea of “practically unimportant” consists of hard core dissidents, many of whom are real experts in making sarcastic comments. A typical line of their argumentation can be heard in a programme of the New Tang Dynasty Television, a major platform for this group and their opinions, which summarised such “practically unimportant” arguments as “little difference between a nine-men-rule [a previous situation in which a nine-men politburo of the CPC ruled China] and a one-man-rule”. The reasoning underlying their “practically unimportant” argument appears to be flawless and persuasive, as it is based directly on the very first article of the China’s Constitution which provides that Communist China is a regime that explicitly enshrines “dictatorship” (see the English version of the Chinese Constitution on the official website of the National Congress of China).

Let us take a look at Section 1 of this article 1, which reads: ” The People’s Republic of China is a socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and peasants.” It features the following key words: “socialist”, “workers”, under “dictatorship”, in the name of “the people”, and in a “democratic” form, which, in the view of the second group, are tantamount to a vivid description of Nazi Germany. From this perspective, the new amendment is indeed “practically unimportant”, as its advocates would like to imply; and this implication creates just the impression that the first group tries to prevent, although their great disservice has indeed contributed to this implication even more than their rivals have.

Ironic as it is, what is more important is to figure out whether the implication as such is true or not. This should have been just a rhetorical question. However, given the great job or disservice that those two groups of “practically unimportant” advocates have done, I must clarify this question in a sincere and professional way. First of all, a short and clear answer to this question would be “no”. More specifically, the misinterpretation of China’s Constitution and fresh amendment stems largely from a misunderstanding of the nature of the Chinese state and the concomitant mistranslation of the so-called “people’s democratic dictatorship”, which, in the original Chinese text, corresponds to “Renmin (人民people’s) Minzhu (民主democratic) Zhuanzheng (专政dictatorship)”, a term invented by Mao in his well-known work “On Renmin Minzhu Zhuanzheng“.

Such a mechanical translation turns out to be a big mistake. First, the term “Minzhu” significantly differs from its western counterpart “democracy”. Given the literal meaning of the two characters that constitute the word “Minzhu” (“Min” denotes “people”, and “Zhu” “owner”), this term actually emphasises: 1. the state power is owned by the people; and 2. the people (majority) have the say. This is moreover exactly what Article 2 of the Chinese Constitution provides. In this sense, it is more precise to translate the term “Minzhu” here as “populocracy” or “majorocracy”, or simply as the people’s ownership.

Moreover, the common translation of “Zhuanzheng” is an even bigger mistake. It is true that Mao, who invented this word, compared it to “dictatorship” in his aforementioned work. However, if his words are read in context, it is evident that Mao was mocking those who criticised him for establishing a “dictatorship” with slight sarcasm, not seriously proclaiming he was a dictator. He even added a sober elaboration about his idea of “Zhuanzheng” right in the next paragraph, defining it as a countermeasure against rebellion by the so-called “reactionaries”, which indicated that they were meant to be treated differently from the people and would not be entitled to equal rights. In this sense, “Zhuanzheng” means (proletarian) oppression, not dictatorship. Accordingly, the term “Renmin Minzhu Zhuanzheng” had better be interpreted as “government of the people, for the people, by the people’s ownership and oppression”. It is evidently premised on Lenin’s state theory, and features both the people and oppression, in a dialectical way.

According to the aforesaid theory on reading the Chinese Constitution, the People’s Republic of China was not and is not a dictatorship, at least not according to the Constitution and law. Rather, it features the people’s ownership and oppression as the nature of the state, which can be considered two sides of the same coin in China. Read this way, the removal of the limitation on the President’s term of office can be seen as a constitutional attempt to enhance oppression of the reactionary based on the political judgment that a new reactionary group (bureaucratic bourgeoisie/corruption class/vested interests) is rising. The attempt as such has been made in accordance with Lenin and Mao’s state theory, based on which the People’s Republic and its Constitution have been structured. This amendment has therefore quantitatively changed the nature of the state by increasing the ratio of oppression to people’s ownership, and more vividly, it features a more Maoist factor. Although this is indeed a brave or even radical change, it has been completely done within the current constitutional framework, and does not necessarily lead to a dictatorship in theory. Given the dialectical relationship between the people’s ownership and oppression, it can even be assumed that the strengthening of oppression may possibly facilitate the people’s ownership and eventually benefit the people. To support this objective, the strategic change is accompanied by a series of operational arrangements, such as the establishment of the State Inspection Commission (SIC), as discussed in Qiao’s blog post (Qiao translated the name of this institution as “the State Supervisory Commission”, but I would rather prefer Prof. He Jiahong‘s translation as SIC).

To sum up, the reasoning above can be considered the rationale behind China’s fresh Constitutional amendment which removes the limitation on the President’s term of office, and, as explained, the nature of the state of China is at stake. This is exactly why this change is important, both theoretically and practically. Therefore, this amendment deserves much more attention than, for example, the establishment of the SIC, which concerns an actual technical minutia. To my opinion, the first group’s argument cannot be upheld, while the second group’s argument and reasoning are unsubstantiated, but their caution against dictatorship, despite their heavy sarcasm, is in practice not entirely unreasonable or unnecessary, especially given China’s long history of dictatorship. All in all, Chinese people are well advised to keep an eye on this amendment, and wait and see what comes in the next five to ten years.



Reply to this blog by Cong-rui Qiao:

I would like to comment on two points, which I consider as erroneous in Shuai’s analysis.

First, Shuai argues that the change to the Presidency’s term limit is practically important. By the virtue of the meaning of ‘practical’, it is concerned with the actual effect of something rather than propositions. Shuai’s metaphoric reference to the ancient dynastic monarchy and his elaboration on the ideological vocabularies do not succeed in substantiate his claim as regards the practical impact upon ‘the nature of the Chinese state’. As detailed in my original commentary, the preponderance of China’s current President Xi Jinping in the decision-making processes is derived from his capacity as Head of the leading political party, not that of the State.

Second, Shuai’s preferred use of the ‘State Inspection Commission’ over the State Supervisory Commission is unconvincing. The mandate of this newly constitutionalised institution is more extensive than mere ‘inspection’, which ranges from investigatory powers, to interrogatory powers, to even detention powers. Not to mention this is precisely how its official English translation stands.

This entry was posted in Institutions, Organisation on by .
Sjaak Zhang

About Sjaak Zhang

Dr. Shuai Zhang (1984), known by his Dutch colleagues as Sjaak, was born in Qingdao, China. He obtained his first law degree at China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL) in 2007, acquired the Legal Professional Qualification Certificate of China in February 2009, and was registered as a bar lawyer in Shandong Province in 2010. He obtained an LL.M in Human Rights Law at CUPL, where he specialized in Civil Rights and Criminal Justice. In 2012, he graduated on a master thesis focusing on China's death penalty review procedure and the right to life. From October 2012 tup until, Shuai worked as a PhD candidate at the Willem Pompe Institute for Criminal Law and Criminology at the Utrecht University, under the bursary of China Scholarship Council. In September 2017, he obtained his PhD in law. His dissertation, "Transparency and Legitimacy in Chinese Criminal Procedure: Beyond Adversarial Dogmas", supervised by Prof. John Vervaele and Prof. Chrisje Brants, co-supervised by Prof. He Jiahong, was published by Eleven International Publishing in 2017.