“Entering a New Era, Achieving New Acts.” This is the bright gold slogan emblazoned this week across the top of the official website of the People’s Daily — right over the top of an image of President Xi Jinping, identified as “the people’s leader,” or renmin lingxiu (人民领袖).

Xi Jinping’s new act, the amendment of China’s Constitution to remove term limits on the country’s presidency, paving the way for his own indefinite period of rule, has been the subject of fevered discussion outside China. Inside China, the topic is virtually impossible to broach, unless privately and in person.

The authorities have actively policed social media, including private chat groups, ensuring networked citizens do not have an opportunity to comment or speculate en masse. China’s cowed news media, meanwhile, have drowned the issue in a parade of noise, glorifying “the amendments” without offering any clear explanation of what these are or what they entail.

This approach was on full display in the article pinned to the top of the People’s Daily website yesterday. The piece, “Web users hotly discuss the constitutional amendment passed by the NPC,” is a compilation of comments reportedly made to the Strong Nation Forum (强国论坛) and the People’s Microblog (人民微博) about “the amendments” . They purr with praise about “protecting the fruits” of reform, “realizing the organic unity of the Party’s position,” or “enriching the constitutional spirit.” But the only hints as to the content of the recent amendments to the Constitution, which formally passed a vote by more than 3,000 NPC delegates on Sunday, come in a pair of posts alluding to the constitutional creation of a National Supervision System and the inclusion of “Xi Jinping Thought” in the Constitution’s preamble.

Unsurprisingly, the published comments make no mention whatsoever of the removal of presidential term limits.

But as I read through China’s non-coverage of these constitutional amendments, it struck me how far we have come in the dashing of liberal hopes for constitutional change since these hopes were voiced in late 2012 and early 2013, just at the dawn of the Xi era.

Marking the 30th anniversary of China’s 1982 Constitution on December 5, 2012, just weeks after he became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping said: “We must firmly establish, throughout society, the authority of the Constitution and the law and allow the overwhelming masses to fully believe in the law.” He also emphasized that “[no] organization or individual has the privilege to overstep the Constitution and the law, and any violation of the Constitution and the law must be investigated.”

In the wake of the anniversary, political reform advocates in China drew inspiration from Xi’s remarks. For them, “firmly establishing the Constitution” could be construed, and seized upon, as a means to push deeper social and political change through a process of actualization. The Constitution, they argued, already formed a consensus about China’s direction for the future. If the country could just put into practice the rights laid out in the Constitution — rights like “freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration” —  this would be immense progress.

On January 2, 2013, the China Media Project published an English-language translation of the New Year’s Greeting that opened the January edition of the liberal journal Yanhuang Chunqiu. Called “The Constitution is a Consensus for Political Reform” (宪法是政治体制改革的共识), the article argued that divisions over how to promote political reform, a “task of pressing urgency,” could be bridged by turning to the language of the Constitution. “As this new year begins, we have a new group of leaders, and certain changes in the way these leaders operate have been cause for encouragement,” said the article. “In this new year, what we hope among a multitude of other things is that there can be real action to make our Constitution real.”

This week, China’s Constitution did indeed get more real — in ways that liberal intellectuals find impossible to accept. The removal of presidential term limits came as a kind of culmination of the illiberal march of Chinese politics, through the very document liberal intellectuals had hoped just five years ago to make the blueprint of meaningful reform.

One has to imagine the insult cuts deep. Xi Jinping, it turns out, is a constitutional reformer after all. And now that he has detonated term limits on his own position as head of state, he can continue to be.

But the strange ambiguity in China’s constitutional pledges still runs just beneath the surface, even in the Party’s propaganda.

One of the comments in the piece on the People’s Daily website, reportedly offered by an internet user writing under the alias “Welcoming Justice” (欢迎正义) said: “Encouraging the people to study the Constitution, standardizing words and actions, will lend even more vitality to the new era. Revering the Constitution, respecting the Constitution, studying the Constitution and cherishing the Constitution. Those serving as officials and cadres must practice [the Constitution] through their actions, establish themselves as examples, and lay down the constitutional spirit. Those cadres who don’t understand the law, the people don’t need. Those officials who don’t understand the law, the ordinary people don’t welcome.”

And what if the people do study the Constitution? What if they expect the document, and the rights it stipulates, to be taken seriously by their officials?

Not to worry. These questions, and all others, are now firmly in the hands of one man, and there really is no need to “hotly discuss” them.

Web users hotly discuss the constitutional amendment passed by the NPC
March 12, 2018

On the afternoon of March 11, “Amendment to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China” (中华人民共和国宪法修正案) passed by a substantial margin, drawing the focus of internet users. The vast majority of web users on Strong Nation Forum (强国论坛) and the People’s Microblog (人民微博) expressed the major significance and far-reaching impact of this amendment and urged its endorsement and active implementation.

. . . .

Web user “Daigo” (津哲代后) said: “The passing of the amendment shows the heart of the Party and the sentiment of the people.”

Web user “Little Cutie” (小可爱) said: “The amendment of the Constitution helps with sustainable development, helps with the continuity of the system, and lets the ordinary people see hope and an objective.”

Web user “Ren Yiping” (任毅平) said: “The advancement of the Constitution with the times preserves the people’s management of their own affairs, strongly defends national integrity, ethnic unity and social stability, and protects the fruits of 40 years of reform. It provides a powerful protection for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people from standing up to becoming prosperous to becoming strong.”

Web user “Erlong’s Truth” (二龙实话) said: “I wholeheartedly support the constitutional amendment. The times are changing, society is progressing and there is always room for the innovation of theories.”

Web user “Ding Guisheng” (丁贵生) wrote: “Governing the nation according to the law establishes the basis for justice and fairness. This is an important choice in ensuring the peace and stability of the country. Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for the New Era (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想) benefits the long-term stability and development of the country . . . .

Web user Xu Xiaolin (絮筱霖) said: “Elevating the great achievements and precious experiences created by the people to the national constitution, realizing the organic unity of the Party’s position, the national will and the people’s wishes, is a successful instance of our Party’s governing of the nation.”

Web user “Aiminmao” said: “The writing of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for the New Era into the preamble to the Constitution provides a safeguard for the course of realizing the Chinese dream of the Chinese people! The constitutional amendment of the National People’s Congress will surely bring health and well-being to China in the new era.”

Web user “15191221122” said: “The Constitution has not only force but warmth, and is closer and closer to our ordinary lives.”

Web user “Crying Bird” (啼鸟) said: “If there are no laws to govern a country it will slip into chaos, and if the laws do not change they will decline. We must resolutely protect the authority of the constitution, supporting changes that accommodate the new situation of the new era.”

Web user “Big Meat-Eating Rabbit” (吃肉的大兔子) said: “The constitutional amendment will have an important influence on the struggle against corruption, patching up shortcomings in supervision, and it can more effectively support the development of the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Web user “Mu Yanhong 102” (慕艳红102) wrote: “The life of the Constitution is in its implementation, and the authority of the Constitution is in its implementation. The process of constitutional amendment is also an opportunity to spread knowledge of the Constitution, and a process of enriching the constitutional spirit. We must fully utilize the rare opportunity afforded by the constitutional amendment, raising the constitutional consciousness of all the people, achieving among the people a consensus about the Constitution. This is especially the case for leading cadres, who must be models in the study of the Constitution, in honoring the Constitution and in promoting the Constitution.”

Web user “Welcoming Justice” (欢迎正义) said: “Encouraging the people to study the Constitution, standardizing words and actions, will lend even more vitality to the new era. Revering the Constitution, respecting the Constitution, studying the Constitution and cherishing the Constitution. Those serving as officials and cadres must practice [the Constitution] through their actions, establish themselves as examples, and lay down the constitutional spirit. Those cadres who don’t understand the law, the people don’t need. Those officials who don’t understand the law, the ordinary people don’t welcome.”

Web user “Bluetooth Dream Release” (蓝牙放飞梦想) said: “As a discipline inspection official, I resolutely support the constitutional amendment. The establishment of a National Supervision System will enable full-coverage monitoring of all public officials who exercise public power . . . . ”

Web user “Yun Liu Yi Jiangnan” (云柳亦江南) said: “As a grassroots Party member and official, I must take the earnest study and respect of the Constitution as the base of my life and work. I must do my part, protecting the Constitution and respecting the law, contributing my energies to this great Mother Country of ours!”

Web user “Not Forgetting the Original Intention, Always Moving Forward” (不忘初心一直向前) said: “As members of the Chinese Communist Party, we must support the amendment of the Constitution, serving as good and law-abiding citizens, and as qualified Party members.”