An effort to clear the way for President Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely, by amending the state constitution to abolish term limits on the Chinese presidency, could become the most controversial political development of modern Chinese history – not only since the establishment of communist rule in 1949 but since the founding of the republic in 1911, when the last Chinese imperial dynasty was overthrown.
By eliminating the two-term limit, Xi will ensure that he can stay at the helm beyond 2023 when his second five-year term ends, enabling him to become president for life, if he so chooses. In political science, a president for life is regarded as a de facto monarch.
Xi has already achieved near-absolute dominance over the Chinese political system, having accumulated more power in his first term than any of his predecessors since Mao Zedong. Xi, nicknamed “China’s chairman of everything”, has taken personal control of policymaking on everything from politics, the economy, national security and foreign affairs to the internet, environment and maritime disputes. His political theory – “Xi Jinping thought” – has been enshrined in the party charter, an honour that puts it on par with Mao’s doctrine and superior to Deng Xiaoping’s.
In making constitutional changes to ensure his indefinite rule, China is morphing from one-party rule to one-man rule, backtracking to the Mao era. The development has in effect overturned the party’s most important political norms and rules regarding governance and power succession – rules that were agreed by post-Mao party leaders led by Deng. Apart from being the mastermind of China’s market reform and opening up, Deng also implemented major reforms aimed at preventing the revival of Maoism and particularly one-man dictatorships.
In setting up age and term limits, Deng’s aims were to avoid the excessive centralisation of power in the hands of one leader; to prevent personality cults; and to scrap the practice of lifelong service for senior officials. Deng also established a “collective leadership” system based on consensus building, power sharing and a mechanism for orderly successions.
While Xi has largely inherited Deng’s pragmatic economic policies, he has shown a determination to rewrite the rule book and revive some of Mao’s philosophy of rule. His fiercest critics accuse him of building a personality cult and indoctrinating the masses. Xi has expanded his clampdowns on corruption and political dissent into a broader crusade to root out anyone disloyal or who fails to comply with his orders.
A more centralised and top-down system might have the merit of allowing for expedited decision-making as Xi aims to lead China’s national rejuvenation at a critical historic juncture.
However, relying on the strongman model is risky, both for Xi himself and the country. It puts the steering wheel of the world’s most populous nation and second largest economy in the hands of one person, spelling danger when that helmsman gets old or ill – as was seen in Mao’s later days. The model makes it harder for Xi to avoid misjudgments and policy mistakes as few will dare to speak out. Removing term limits will help prevent future challenges to Xi’s authority and legitimacy, but the resurgence of strongman politics could intensify internal power struggles as factions will compete for the powers and resources once shared among all.
History has shown many political leaders who sought lifelong service have not managed to realise their vision. Some have been deposed long before their deaths, others have even been assassinated by political enemies. And even if Xi succeeds in becoming a lifelong leader, he would in all likelihood then face serious challenges in selecting a successor to continue his legacies after his death and guaranteeing a smooth transition of power. Mao repeatedly failed in this regard. The stakes could not be any higher: renewed hostility among political rivals and the repression of political dissent puts China at risk of repeating the tragedies of the Mao era. ■
Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a China affairs columnist since the 1990s