BANGDONG, China — Western media spilled tankers of ink this week about this country’s proposal to abolish the two-term limit for president. If ratified by the National People’s Congress—the legislature that convenes on March 5—the changes to the constitution would effectively enable President Xi Jinping “to be the most important and powerful person in China for life… so long as he is alive and the Communist Party is running China,” writes Bill Bishop of Sinocism.
Inside the country, the proposed amendments were read in their entirety on the Sunday evening news—a full 17 minutes showing blue screen and white text—and the announcement generated a stir on social media. But in this remote village of 350 people in southwestern Yunnan province, none have even heard the news. Nor do they seem concerned about the risk of political abuses that has engrossed the West.
For now, Cao Yong is preoccupied with other things. The 30-year old owner of a convenience shop is preparing to travel to the nearest city with his wife to prepare for the birth of their second child. We chat on a squatty brown couch in the shade of his plywood porch.
“Do you follow the news?” I ask, trying to delicately navigate the sensitive topic.
“Not really, most people here don’t,” he says matter-of-factly. “Older folks might watch TV. My generation mostly uses phones for texting and games, but sometimes I open Toutiao.” Jinri Toutiao, or “today’s headlines,” is a news app recently shut down by the Party for vulgar content. However, it was quickly resurrected after its owners recruited Party members to comprise what is now the largest content-screening team in China. For good measure, they also added a “New Era” news channel on the app—a tip of the Mao cap to the current president’s political theory, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.
Cao Yong had heard nothing about the term-limit issue, but was curious enough to open Toutiao. There was nothing about it in the top headlines, but typing “constitution” (宪法) in the search bar auto-populated recent popular searches: constitution term limits, constitution amendment content, constitution national chairman… One of the top articles was from the Global Times, a pro-Communist Party tabloid, on how foreign media had welcomed the proposed amendments. It seemed Toutiao’s new content screeners were doing their jobs: all news about scrapping term limits was positive.
So was the response of every other villager I talked to. “That’s great!” exclaimed Brother Huang after I broke the news. “Xi is doing great work and should continue—especially in cracking down on corruption. That’s good for everyone.”
Following typical Bangdong custom, we chat over local tea and a plate of plain sunflower seeds. Brother Huang, a local tea farmer, also gets out a bag of special seeds that have been roasted and seasoned. The rose petal seasoning tastes like soap. I opt for the plain seeds.
Like Cao Yong, Brother Huang also doesn’t follow the news. “You can follow it, but you can’t do anything about it.” He shrugged off his fatalism with a carefree laugh as he cracked open another seed between his front teeth. “Anyway, Xi does a good job,” he added. “Even if he did a bad job, the other leaders would take care of it. We common folk don’t have to worry about it.”
Bangdong consensus holds that Xi is an excellent leader for China. Villagers are quick to point to his successful poverty-alleviation and anti-corruption efforts. Because Xi himself spent seven years laboring in rural Shaanxi Province as a “sent-down youth” during the Cultural Revolution, many believe he is sympathetic to their struggles and genuinely working to improve their lives. “Twenty years would be better than only 10!” quipped one villager. Xi has become a symbol of stability, praised for leading the Chinese people to a great rejuvenation following a century of war, hunger and humiliation.
“We need him to continue to carry us forward,” said an animated Party member, the only one to have heard the news prior to our conversation. “Xi has done great, now he can do even greater things for China,” he added. “If we shift power, we will lose our momentum, if not our stability.”
In fact, it was precisely to establish stability and build momentum that former President Deng Xiaoping voluntarily transitioned power to his successor Jiang Zemin with these words: “To build the fate of a country on the renown of one or two people is very unhealthy and very dangerous.” He had suffered severely under Chairman Mao and shared a widespread desire to prevent the return of one-man dictatorship. So Deng embarked on institutionalizing collective leadership and the peaceful transition of power that China has followed for the last 30 years.
Xi is undoing those norms. Ironically, Xi and his family also suffered immensely during the Cultural Revolution and he has appeared to be unwavering in his pursuit of stability to avoid history repeating itself. Nevertheless, he also continues to concentrate power and dismantle the political checks and balances established to avoid another calamity. Why? Villagers say Xi is the only one who can continue to maintain stability, address corruption and further growth. They find it unfathomable that there would be risk in his unrestrained power. I think Xi agrees with them.
“Xi is good,” the Party member said. “But we don’t know about the next guy, so we should stick with Xi.”
Even as the Party member assures me of Xi’s benevolence, Deng Xiaoping’s words come mind: “When nothing’s wrong, it’s no problem. Once something’s wrong, it’s too late.” (不出事没问题，一出事就不可收拾)
The Party member must have sensed my misgivings because he looked at me with gentle reassurance and added, “There’s no need to worry.”
Editor’s note: This blog was updated on March 26.