In ending presidential term limits, ‘Xi Jinping is thinking global and acting local’

The presidency is a largely nominal office in the Chinese political system but it has advantages for a leader looking for a bigger role in world affairs, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 February, 2018, 6:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 March, 2018, 5:48pm

Xi Jinping’s push to repeal the term limits of the presidency, a largely nominal office, could be driven in part by his global ambitions and desire to institutionalise the Communist Party as the state, analysts said. 

While Xi’s intention to stay in power beyond two five-year terms was no surprise to many China watchers, Beijing’s announcement on Sunday of a planned amendment to the two-term clause in the constitution so early in his second term did catch many off guard.

They said the announcement that Xi could stay on beyond 2023 also sent a message to cadres to abandon any hopes of deferring Xi’s policies by “waiting him out”. 

China will scrap limit on presidential terms, meaning Xi Jinping can stay on

In Chinese politics, real power rests in the positions of the party’s general secretary and the chairman of the Central Military Commission, with the presidency the least important of the three offices Xi holds. 

Since there is no written limit on his tenure as the party and military chief, Xi could theoretically cling on to power by breaking with recent precedent and not stepping down from these two positions. But he would not be able to meet with other heads of state on an equal basis without the presidency, observers said.

“He could have [stayed in power] as both party general secretary and chairman of the CMC, but without changing the presidential statute he would technically not have been able to represent China on the world stage. This is a clear indication that Xi plans to stay in power indefinitely,” said David Shambaugh, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. 

This is a clear indication that Xi plans to stay in power indefinitely
David Shambaugh, George Washington University

In a departure from late leader Deng Xiaoping’s maxim of keeping a low profile, Xi has actively sought to bring China closer to the centre of the world’s stage and expand its global influence. 

In his first term, Xi made 28 overseas trips to more than 50 countries – more than any of his predecessors in the same period.

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Warren Sun, a historian of the Chinese Communist Party at Monash University in Australia, said Xi’s keenness to prolong his presidency suggested he would exercise unrivalled dominance in setting China’s foreign policy, just like late strongman Mao Zedong.

“Already the most foreign travelled Chinese leader, Xi and his presentable first lady apparently enjoy the limelight and grandstanding on the world stage as part of his ambition to magnify China’s voice in great power diplomacy,” he said.

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In a practical sense, holding onto all three titles at the same time would also save Xi the trouble or risk of having to share power – even if it is in name only – with someone, or give a false perception to the world that there were two top leaders in China.

“It's been clear for some time that Xi is unwilling to share power with anyone – not even with a relatively weak premier at his side,” said Patricia Thornton, associate professor of Chinese politics at the University of Oxford. 

It's been clear for some time that Xi is unwilling to share power with anyone
Patricia Thornton, University of Oxford

In his first term, Xi has amassed so much power that many critics have warned his administration is breaking away from the collective leadership engineered by Deng. 

“When the time comes in 2023, he may feel that installing somebody else in this post is dangerous to his own power, because even though the powers of the president are nominal, on paper they are extensive, and somebody who wants to challenge Xi could use that post to make life hard for him,” Nathan said. 

“Xi may have looked at the Putin-Medvedev situation and decided that that kind of arrangement is more trouble and more risky than it’s worth.” 

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When Vladimir Putin reached his two-consecutive-term limit as the Russian president in 2008, he chose his close aide Dmitry Medvedev as his successor for a term and became prime minister, before returning to the presidency in 2012. 

Matthias Stepan, a Chinese politics specialist at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, said the eradication of presidential term limits dovetailed with a broader signature trend of Xi’s rule – the intentional blurring of the line between the party and the state. 

Deng introduced the separation of the party and state to try ward off the excessive concentration of power, seen by the party as the root of the political mayhem during Mao Zedong’s era. 

One example is the establishment of the National Supervision Commission – a powerful body set to incorporate various existing graft-fighting agencies. As a state agency, it will share power, staff and office with the party’s graft watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. 

Many are watching for similar mergers among other party and state organs, potentially at the annual legislative sessions next month.

The proposed scrapping of the presidential term limit has sparked concerns among observers that China is leaning back towards the one-man rule seen during Mao’s era, whose arbitrary and unpredictable nature repeatedly led to perilous succession crises.

Change to Chinese presidency term limits could signal overhaul of role

“In fact, Xi’s move to promote the role of state president goes even further than Mao,” Sun said. “Mao never considered the ceremonial state chairmanship as necessary.

In China, the head of state has traditionally been a ceremonial office since its creation in 1954, when it was translated as “state chairman”. Mao gave up the title after just one term and passed it onto Liu Shaoqi, who was later purged and died in custody during the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution. 

When the position of president was reinstated in the 1980s, it was held consecutively by two party elders. But real power was held by Deng.

Daniel Leese, a professor at Germany's University of Freiburg, said people always counted more than institutions in China. 

“Deng did not have to hold all important offices. He was content with being CMC chairman and still had the power to fire general secretaries as he pleased,” Leese said.  

The offices of the president and the party’s general secretary were not held in the same hands until the early 1990s, when former president Jiang Zemin was named the head of the party, the state and the military – as well as the “core leader” – in Deng’s attempt to shore up support for him in the aftermath of the bloody crackdown of the Tiananmen protests. Since then, the three positions have been held by a single leader. 

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Global Times, a widely read state-run tabloid, stressed the importance of a single leadership in an editorial on Sunday night. 

“Over the past two decades, a trinity of leadership consisting of the CPC Central Committee general secretary, president of the nation and chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission has taken shape and proven to be effective,” the editorial said.

“Removing the two-term limit of the Chinese president can help maintain the trinity system and improve the institution of leadership of the [party] and the nation.” 

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Regardless of the significance of the presidency, the announcement is a clear message to all at home and abroad that Xi is here to stay, and so are his policies – ranging from his war against corruption, poverty and pollution to the stringent ideological control and fierce crackdown on civil society. 

“Everyone – both inside and outside of China – can now assume Xi will rule indefinitely. Internally, that means that any factions that might have been trying to ‘wait him out’ will now be forced to acquiesce to Xi’s rule and policies,” Shambaugh said.

Of course, having an unlimited term also ramps up the pressure on Xi who would have no one but himself to blame if his policies and ambitions failed to deliver.

“In the coming term and beyond, the now more empowered [Xi] could well fly high in pursuing his China dream of making China great and glorious again,” Sun said.

“But it would be wishful thinking to expect from him a democratic China or a freer civil society in the massively expanding Middle Kingdom.”