With an end to term limits, Xi can realise his Chinese dream – but will the price for China be too high?
Deng Yuwen says Xi Jinping may have good intentions for removing the rule limiting a president to two terms in office but, in the long run, society won’t be better off by overturning a decades-old institution put in place to prevent abuse of power
Last Sunday, the Chinese Communist Party shocked the world by proposing to scrap the two-term limit for the Chinese presidency and vice-presidency, widely seen as a move to clear the way for Xi Jinping to retain power after 2023. The proposal is likely to be adopted later this month when the national legislature meets in Beijing.
Xi’s wish to stay on is no surprise – China watchers have speculated for months about his intent – but the timing of the announcement caught many off guard. Though the proposal was discussed in January at the party leaders’ second plenum, where revisions to the Chinese constitution were on the agenda, there was no word then of a discussion on term limits. The assumption was that the issue would not be raised at the “two sessions”.
More importantly, since the state presidency is more of a symbolic role in China’s political system, with real power vested in the party’s general secretary, the term limit is not considered a real obstacle had Xi wanted to remain president; he can get the relevant clause in the constitution amended at the 20th party congress in 2022.
Why, then, is he making the move now?
One educated guess is that it stems from his wish to realise the “Chinese dream” and bring about national rejuvenation during his term, to play a role in the history of the Communist Party – and of China – that is comparable to, and even exceeds, that of Mao Zedong’s.
Five years ago, when Xi rallied the nation to achieve the Chinese dream, he might not have known how difficult it would be. The sweeping anti-corruption campaign he launched to strengthen his grip on power has ensnared corrupt officials at all levels. Yet he has not managed to bend the party machinery to the goal of national rejuvenation, and the government project to reform China’s economy and society has stalled. Without these reforms, China’s full potential cannot be realised; nor can the Chinese dream.
Now in his second term as president, Xi’s time is running out. Usually, the clout of a second-term state leader begins to diminish three or four years into the term, as party officials jockey to realign themselves ahead of a transition of power and, hence, perform their duties only half-heartedly.
This is probably the scenario Xi is trying to avert. He is giving notice that he does not intend to step down so cadres will not be distracted by a power struggle and remain focused on the work of national development.
If my analysis is correct, then Xi surely has good intentions for trying to remove the term limit. However, the price of such good intentions is too high, for they come at the expense of the progress made in China’s political development.
After 40 years of reforms in China, little has been achieved on the political front other than the normalisation and institutionalisation of power transfers at the top, which has been the reformers’ greatest legacy.
The 1982 constitution limits the chairman of the National People’s Congress and the nation’s president and premier to serving no more than two consecutive terms, while a directive issued by the Central Committee in 2006 sets out similar rules for senior party and government officials. The implementation of these term limits is the ruling Communist Party’s most significant political achievement, the result of painful lessons learned from the disastrous years under Mao’s “leader for life” system.
In old age, Deng Xiaoping once said that his last useful role was to institutionalise political succession in China. As can be seen, in the eyes of the chief architect of China’s reform and opening up, this institution was a prized asset.
Over the course of history, societies have wrestled with the leviathan of naked power. Among the various experiments conducted to restrain political power, none have succeeded in tackling the ills of hereditary power succession as well as the one now commonly adopted in modern societies – the establishment of term limits for political leaders. The overconcentration of power and lack of supervision in a “leader for life” system often invites abuse. Only by setting term limits can we avoid the pitfalls of such abuse and ensure a peaceful transfer of power.
In many ways, the political process is one of trial and error. And only the institution of term limits – based on democratic foundations and built on constitutional authority – can limit the scale of the mistake. A system of “leader for life” or hereditary power succession has no such safeguards.
To err is human. And a leader who tolerates no checks on his power is even more likely to err, because power can make one arrogant and impervious to other views.
The ruler of an authoritarian state can be said to have absolute power, because they cannot be removed from office. They are free to abuse their power for as long as they live, causing great harm to society and the people. The Cultural Revolution was one example of the abuses of absolute power.
Setting term limits for political leaders is often linked to democracy or constitutional rule. Although the first does not always lead to the second, no democracy or constitutional rule can be established without some kind of term limits.
Since they were introduced by Deng more than 30 years ago, term limits have stayed intact through the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao eras and become an integral part of China’s political system. It would be a shame if they were to be overturned overnight.
This regression in China’s political development will be harmful to society as a whole. According to mainland media, people have been baffled or upset by the move to remove the term limits. On the day the news broke, searches for the term “migration” reportedly spiked for a time on Baidu, the top Chinese search engine. This is a fair indication of the public view.
While the number of people who can actually migrate is small, they are the backbone of the country. Most middle-class people who stay behind would become more pessimistic in their political outlook and feel more alienated from the governing party. Without the support of the millions of Chinese people and relying only on its bureaucrats, China cannot realise its dream of rejuvenation.
Deng Yuwen is a researcher at the Charhar Institute think tank. This is translated from Chinese