Interview: 'The Chinese Communist Party Wants to Stay in Power Forever'

china-baotong-july182016.jpg Former top Chinese Communist Party official Bao Tong is shown in a file photo.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party looks set to remove a two-term limit from the posts of president and vice president, paving the way for President Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely. A clause removing the requirement for the country's president and vice president to "serve no more than two consecutive terms" will likely be ratified by China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), when it meets next month. Bao Tong, a former top aide to late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, spoke to RFA's Mandarin Service about the proposed changes:

RFA: This is the first time that lifelong tenure for China's leaders has been an option since the end of the Cultural Revolution 40 years ago. Why was it abolished back then?

Bao Tong: After the Cultural Revolution ended, a lot of officials and leaders decided from bitter experience that the fact that there was no limit on a leader's tenure was a real problem, and so they wanted to limit leaders' terms in office. As I recall, the first person to bring up the issue of limiting terms in office was Yan Jiaqi [of the China Academy of Social Sciences] at a retreat in 1979. Back then, the party leaders took a cautious attitude, and didn't agree to it immediately, but they didn't scotch it either. The first person to give it the green light, as I recall, was [then ruling Chinese Communist Party leader] Deng Xiaoping.

RFA: But Yan Jiaqi was later attacked by Deng as a tool of Mao Zedong's designated successor Hua Guofeng, wasn't he?

Bao Tong: Everyone thought back then that Deng Xiaoping was terribly enlightened, but later, we found out that actually he was setting this thing up to use as a stick [to beat opponents with] and he used it to attack and depose Hua Guofeng. But when he himself came to power, he was reluctant to step down and yield power. He said several times, jokingly, that the whole idea was to make other leaders step down, not himself. And he did everything in his power to remain as head of the Central Military Commission.

RFA: The Global Times, sister paper to the Communist Party official paper, the People's Daily, said in an editorial on Feb. 25 that the constitutional amendment doesn't herald a return to lifelong leadership. What do you have to say to that?

Bao Tong: Actually [Deng Xiaoping] was setting a precedent for today's leaders to follow, which was that it makes no difference what is said about this. They may not say that they want a return to lifelong leadership, but at the same time they are in fact doing away with limits to terms in office. There is now scope for unlimited power at the top, and no time limit on that power. It is total. That will be the paradigm set by this constitutional amendment.

RFA: President Xi Jinping will also have his political thought, and that of his predecessors, inscribed into the constitution of the People's Republic of China. What is the significance of this?

Bao Tong: It's hard to say, actually. They are putting Deng Xiaoping Thought into the constitution, and yet Deng opposed lifelong leadership. So for them to do away with limits on terms in office, they are going against Deng Xiaoping Thought. That tells us that it makes no difference whether Deng Xiaoping Thought is enshrined in the constitution or not; it can always be repudiated or not implemented. I think that is one interpretation one could make.

RFA: In his later years, Deng Xiaoping eventually gave up his seat on the Politburo standing committee and his chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, but he was always there behind the scenes. He never gave up his power, did he?

Bao Tong: And now we have people carrying forward this legacy of Deng Xiaoping, which was also his essence [as a leader]. Historically speaking, how many leaders of republics stay in office for life? Only China has this, which makes it a rather exceptional place. The Chinese Communist Party is making this amendment to the constitution because it wants its leaders to stay in power forever. It wants to stay in power forever.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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