Xi Jinping was already China’s most powerful leader in decades.
The son of one of the country’s revolutionary heroes, in his first five years in charge he has consolidated personal control and been hailed as the “core” of the Communist Party.
Last year, Xi Jinping Thought was enshrined in the constitution – an honour previously reserved for Mao Zedong.
Now, Xi appears to be laying the groundwork to hold on to that power indefinitely.
Chinese state media is reporting a proposal from the Communist Party’s Central Committee to change the constitution to remove the two-term limit on the presidency.
This would mean Xi could stay on beyond his current five-year term, which is due to end in 2023.
Technically, this is just a proposal, and the final decision will be taken at the National People’s Congress next month, but given the nature of China’s political system if the idea is being publicly floated, there is vanishingly little doubt that it will be implemented.
As leader of China, Xi Jinping holds three titles: General Secretary of the Communist Party, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and President of the PRC.
With no fixed time limits on the first two positions, if the presidential term rule is lifted, there will be no formal barrier to Xi remaining in power as long as he sees fit.
He would not be the first authoritarian leader to decide he needed to remain at the helm.
Chairman Mao ruled the People’s Republic of China from its founding in 1949, until his death, 27 years later, in 1976.
In the Soviet Union, every paramount leader either died in office or was overthrown in elite power struggles.
After the turbulence of Mao’s final years, and the chaos of his “Cultural Revolution”, plus a keen awareness of the USSR’s troubles, Deng Xiaoping worked to normalise the succession process and warned of the dangers of centralising too much power in any one person’s hands.
In 1982, the current two-term limit was introduced, and in the decades since, albeit imperfectly, the trend in China has been towards more orderly transitions of leadership.
If this proposal is approved, we will be watching that trend reverse and Xi Jinping lead this country in the opposite direction.
Perhaps he has been inspired by his good friend, Vladimir Putin, who is now into his 18th year in power in Russia, 14 of those as president, and is widely expected to secure his fourth term next month.
Both countries’ recent history illustrates the dangers of this approach.
Last year, Xi Jinping declared the start of a “new era” – the question now is how long that era will last and what it will mean for China, and beyond.