Chinese President Xi Jinping may never have to retire.
Xi, 64, broke with decades of Chinese political precedent Sunday when he proposed altering China’s constitution to scrap a two-term presidential time limit.
The term limit came about to ensure China’s leaders didn’t return to the days of Chairman Mao Zedong, the communist revolutionary who heavily centralized power. Mao ruled China from 1949 until his death in 1976.
Xi took office in 2013 and was expected to step down in about five years.
Though the move clears the way for a strong ruler to stay on indefinitely, analysts said, it might indicate an insecurity about Xi’s grip on power, and it could harm China when it’s time to choose Xi’s successor.
Xi’s “ability to push this decision through in the short term is undoubtedly a display of his grip on all levers of power,” Richard McGregor, author of The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, wrote in a blog post Sunday. But, McGregor said, “the very fact that he feels the need to do so could easily be a sign of something else — that he is possessed by an urgency to gather even more power than he already has to keep his enemies at bay.”
Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in England, said that although Xi consolidated power over his first term, this action is not “redolent of a despot like Mao.”
“This move comes at a time when the rest of the world is in flux and China believes the time is ripe for it to stake out its global leadership role,” he said. “Xi has set out his vision and is in position to oversee it’s execution. He has no excuse now if he fails to deliver.”
Under Xi, China asserted itself in Asian affairs, renewing its territorial claims in the South China Sea. It boosted its military capabilities and unveiled a vast international logistics and transportation project called the “Belt and Road” initiative that aims to connect Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Xi used China’s relationship with North Korea as leverage with Washington.
Rod Wye, an ex-British diplomat and China expert at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, said Xi’s move “injects a new level of uncertainty into Chinese politics” because it upsets the process for choosing a successor.
“Xi may be president for life, but at some point, he won’t be alive, and successions in authoritarian states, as China is becoming, are often very difficult times,” he said.
China’s Foreign Ministry pushed back Monday against international criticism over Xi’s plans to stay in power.
Lu Kang, a ministry spokesman, told a news briefing in Beijing that China’s constitution was something that only Chinese should have a say in. “I hope everyone can acknowledge the voice of all the Chinese people,” he said.