China’s National People’s Congress recently passed a constitutional change to remove the two-term presidential term limit with a 99.8% passing rate. Whilst the official reason for the removal is to ensure that Xi can keep his trinity leadership, as Xi’s tenure as military chairman and secretary general of the Communist Party is unlimited, this announcement generates fears of further draconian repression in the freedom of expression and civil liberties in both China and Hong Kong.
Although China has always maintained an iron fist on freedom of expression by censoring expression and blocking a host of websites, the recent censorship following the announcement of scrapping the presidential term has generated concerns that China’s censorship will increase exponentially. According to Free Weibo, a website which shows all the censored terms on Weibo, phrases such as “amend the constitution”, “Xi Jingping”, and “Chairman of the Nation” have swiftly been censored on Weibo. Other words that have been censored include “immortality”, “disagree”, and “lifelong”. The seemingly innocent letter “N” has also been censored as netizens used the letter “N” to represent the number of Xi’s presidential term to voice their resentment. This is an outright violation of Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights which states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression”. If wide-ranging censorship already started before the constitutional change was passed by the National People’s Congress, one can only speculate that Xi will be increasingly eager to silent his dissidents and those who oppose his limitless tenure in the upcoming years.
Xi’s limitless authoritarian tenure also carries implications for Hong Kong’s freedoms. Xi’s limitless presidency instills fears that Hong Kong is inching closer towards enacting Article 23 of the Basic Law given Xi’s flagrant disapproval of the Umbrella Movement. Article 23 of the Basic Law pertains to national security and states that Hong Kong “shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, [or] subversion against the [central government], or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in [Hong Kong], and to prohibit political organisations or bodies of [Hong Kong] from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies”. Article 23 is an unswerving threat to the civil liberties of Hong Kong citizens as it directly undermines the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly by giving the government the power to prohibit pluralism of political debates, an integral aspect of human rights. Furthermore, the concerns are proliferated by the purposefully ambiguous drafting of Article 23, as the Basic Law does not provide guidance on what constitutes “subversion” or “sedition”. As a result, this creates a real risk that Article 23 would be used as a tool to censor all political dissent in Hong Kong. Given Xi’s red line warning to Hong Kong during its Umbrella Movement in 2017, it is not a matter of whether Article 23 will be enacted, but terrifyingly, a question of when it will be enacted during Xi’s presidency.
Notably, the constitutional change carries fears that China will further tighten its grip on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement by continuing to interpret Hong Kong’s Basic Law to suit their communist ideals. The National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), China’s legislative body, has never been shy to interpret the Basic Law to befit their desired outcome. For instance, in 2016, the NPCSC interpreted Article 104 of the Basic Law in order to disqualify pro-democracy politicians from office. Although it is too early to predict how far the rule of law in Hong Kong will be subverted by the constitutional change, it is undeniable that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement will be hampered.
Ultimately, Xi’s limitless presidential term confirms a silent truth: the Communist de facto monarch will not tolerate any successors or challenges to his rule. In formally removing the presidential term limit, the National People’s Congress has also tightened its grip on civil liberties. The future of freedom of expression in China and Hong Kong is left hanging in the balance.