Expert views: PRC constitution changes, NZ-China ties

China's National People's Congress (NPC) has voted to remove presidential terms limits by 2,958 in favour and two against (with three abstentions), potentially allowing President Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely. The NPC is meeting from March 5 to 20 to vote on a number of proposed constitutional changes.

The change comes after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee announced proposed amendments to the PRC’s constitution.

The term limit change is getting the most attention. But there are further notable amendments, including the incorporation  of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” into the constitution. Further language highlighting the role of the Party and socialist values has also been included.

Other proposed changes deal with the consolidation and development of the United Front, building a “community with a shared future for humanity”, and the addition of the sentence “The leadership of the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics”. To keep up with developments, check out NPC Observer.

The removal of term limits confirmed speculation that the CCP would open a path for President Xi Jinping to extend his tenure beyond the two five-year terms that had been the norm since constitutional changes introduced in 1982. The 1982 change, led by Deng Xiaoping, was a response to the long rule of Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976.

The changes have been met with pushback in some quarters, including on social media.

The following are expert views on what the proposed changes mean for New Zealand-China ties.

New Zealand-China ties

Strategic ambiguity more challenging

As in domestic politics, the constitutional changes will open up new areas of tensions between China and other major countries in the world. Washington in the past few weeks has indicated it’s ready to accept China as a competitor, as an economic power, but also a revisionist challenging the norms and values of how we organise politics and economy. NZ, for its part, has been keen to see a rule-based international order as important for NZ’s national interest. Whether the constitutional changes would have a direct impact on what we do on specific policy issues is yet to see, what has emerged from China will certainly affect our interaction with China on broader terms and hence make maintaining strategic ambiguity a bit more challenging.  

Xiaoming Huang, Victoria University of Wellington

NZ welcomes constructive engagement, but China influence allegations may sour relationship

Although New Zealand welcomes China’s constructive engagement with the region, Wellington is likely to put more emphasis on values and defending the rules-based international order. New Zealand values its economic relationship with China (and the FTA with China has been beneficial for both countries). While it is too early to say how the recent changes in China may affect NZ-China relations, PM Jacinda Ardern’s recent speech to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs had some notable remarks. She mentioned that her government “will speak openly and honestly with our friends in Beijing,” as there were “areas where we do not see eye to eye with China.” In fact, she specifically mentioned human rights in addition to trade and security related issues in the region. While New Zealand enjoys a healthy relationship with China, allegations about China’s influence in domestic politics in New Zealand have the potential to sour this relationship. For now, Ardern has promised that New Zealand will remain vigilant.

Manjeet Pardesi, Victoria University of Wellington

China’s influence will continue to grow

For better or worse, states on China’s immediate periphery will increasingly feel the influence of China’s rising power. New Zealand is no exception to this trend, even if the sheer geographical distance between our two states will serve as a buffer of sorts. Moving forward, expect to see increased interdependence. China is already our number one trading partner, and that aspect of our relationship will deepen and strengthen. We can anticipate increased numbers of Chinese students studying at our tertiary institutions, and increased two-way tourism. On the broader foreign policy front, expect the two states to build on ties even as we agree to disagree over the high-profile territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Nicholas Khoo, University of Otago

Understanding of China’s one-party system needed in NZ

New Zealand, as we always have, is engaging with a political and economic system which is quite unlike our own and is not moving in the direction of liberalisation towards a multi-party democracy. The role of the CCP in governance and management of the economy and society is being strengthened. New Zealanders should recognise this when engaging with China as opposed to projecting onto China our own systems (capitalist and liberal democratic) or believing China’s political system is becoming more like ours.

Jason Young, Victoria University of Wellington; New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre

China’s efforts to ‘rebalance’ international system should be taken seriously

Ironically in an increasingly fluid and uncertain international environment, Chinese constitutional change signals that New Zealand-Chinese relationship will be likely to remain on the same footing moving into the future. New Zealand–Chinese political and economic relations will continue to deepen. In terms of wider Chinese international relations, the change of Chinese Constitution signals that foreign policy makers should take seriously Chinese efforts to be recognised as a global power and to ‘rebalance’ the international system in a manner that is more consistent with Chinese perceived interests.

Xiang Gao, Eastern Institute of Technology, Auckland


Read expert views on what China's constitutional changes mean for China's domestic politics and international relations.

-Asia Media Centre