Xi Jinping’s power has a purpose – one person to see China through its development plans
Robert Lawrence Kuhn says international media have fixated on the end of term limits and missed the point; the pivotal moments in Xi Jinping’s rise to unparallelled power happened several months ago, and there’s a reason the party supports him
To interview delegates and officials at the annual National People’s Congress in Beijing, interspersed with being interviewed in the international media about China abolishing term limits for its president, is to inhabit parallel universes.
Delegates and officials focus on clusters of issues from controlling financial risk and reducing pollution to scientific innovation and business stimulation, plus enhancing and institutionalising China’s anti-corruption campaign with a powerful National Supervision Commission. The international media, no surprise, focus on the constitutional amendment ending term limits, assuming President Xi Jinping will now serve in a for-life dictatorship, reminiscent of Mao’s China, the Soviet Union, the Kim family in North Korea and some African countries.
It is no challenge to explain why abolishing term limits is bad for China – dependency on one human being who is not omniscient but is hostage to fortune, fewer and weaker checks and balances, forced conformity in a complex society with no easy answers, etc. The system begins stronger in that hard choices can be made and consistency maintained, but it could become brittle in that officials are more wary and may say things they do not believe.
It is a challenge to explain why abolishing term limits is good for China, so that’s what I will do.
First, some background. There are three separate issues being conflated: the significance of ending term limits, the intended consequences and the unintended consequences. Though terminating the two-term limit for China’s presidency captures headlines, it is more the symbolic, final step ratifying Xi’s near-absolute power than the big breakthrough itself. Xi’s prior designation as “core” of the Communist Party in October 2016 and the inscribing of “Xi Jinping Thought...” into the party constitution in October 2017 were more meaningful.
Moreover, the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest authoritative body in China, unambiguously supports Xi. China watchers see the front page of People’s Daily – published the day after the new Standing Committee marched out on stage – which featured Xi’s photo on top, many times larger than the smaller, subservient photo of all seven members lined up on the bottom.
First term limits ... now Xi Jinping to shake up the state to tighten Communist Party’s grip on government
All this reconfirms that, in a system where the party controls the state – especially where the party is Marxist and ideology is its basis for being – Xi, as core of the party, with his name inscribed in the constitutions of party and state as the contemporary arbiter of Marxism, will be the uncontested, overarching leader of China for the rest of his sentient life.
For intended consequences, the official line is that the purpose is national cohesion brought about when the three top leadership positions – general secretary of the party, chairman of the Central Military Commission and president of the republic – are aligned temporally and held by a single person.
This makes sense, but as a primary, proximal motivation, it is not entirely persuasive. The current structure has existed for decades without outcry or angst (not to mention that the three positions could be unified by installing term limits on the other two).
The “new era”, marked by economic, social and global complexities, is said to require firm and consistent leadership, making moot inner party struggles and even mitigating political gossip, facilitating focus on the tasks of governance and development. Specifically, because advancing reform has become more difficult, with entrenched interest groups resisting change, the message must now go forth that all must get with the programme, because you can’t outwit or outwait Xi.
Because, it is said that only Xi has the vision, experience, competence and character to bring about “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people”, especially from 2020 to 2035 and ultimately to 2050 – bringing China to global centre stage – Xi’s unimpeded leadership is deemed essential. China cannot afford “downtime” to accommodate a change of leadership, and after Xi’s success at the 19th National Party Congress came the time to make clear that he will call the shots for the foreseeable future.
Some argue that doing away with term limits shows the superiority of the Chinese system as it allows flexibility in matching leadership to requirements (though what national leader, when extending his reach, has not claimed “current requirements” as justification?).
The party-run Global Times stated that ending term limits does not mean China has reverted to president-for-life tenure. (But who can deny that however long Xi holds the top positions seems largely up to him?)
As for the unintended consequences, the almost unanimous, disparaging foreign reaction – other than US President Donald Trump’s – did not burnish China’s international image. More worrisome would be a reluctance by officials to offer constructive opposing views on central policies.
By stressing term limits, the international media misses fundamental changes going on in China – this year, innovation, streamlining of government, facilitation of business (cutting bureaucracy and reducing taxes), rural revitalisation and rural land reform. The 13th National People’s Congress shows how the grand vision and mission of the 19th National Party Congress is translated into specific strategies and policies. If one sees only term limits, one cannot visualise the big picture.
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As for Xi maintaining the presidency perpetually, it doesn’t actually matter much – this is the deep insight of how China’s party-state system works. Xi as core of the party and “Xi Jinping Thought...” as the party’s (and now the state’s) guiding principle means that Xi can transfer titular party leadership and/or the presidency to others and still maintain his overarching power. It may well be that, after serving two or even three more terms, rather than trying to find and install another leader like himself, he will move to bring about true democracy within the party.
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Here’s the best case. Xi will not be leader-for-life, but leader long enough to bring about China’s national rejuvenation and establish a Chinese kind of democratic norms. Could Xi continue until around 2035, when China plans to have “basically” achieved full modernisation, heading towards, by mid-century, 2050, a “great modern socialist country”?
Many expect this experiment to end badly for China. It is indeed an experiment but its end is not set. It may be a race between achieving Xi’s grand vision and some untoward perturbation that could cause fracture.
All factors considered, I am not saying abolishing term limits is absolutely good for China. I am saying it may be good – because of China’s special conditions and Xi’s special capabilities – but if it is good, it’s just for this once, and it’s just for so long. That’s the best case. I’m rooting for Xi.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn is a public intellectual, international corporate strategist and investment banker, and China expert/commentator. He is the author of How China’s Leaders Think and he is co-creator (with Adam Zhu) and host of CGTN’s Closer to China with R.L. Kuhn and The Watcher commentaries