The Emperor Has No Term Limits
This weekend, Xi Jinping made it clear that he doesn’t intend to go anywhere. According to a proposed constitutional amendment eliminating presidential term limits, the powerful leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will be able to stay on as China’s head of state indefinitely. Through his anticorruption campaign, his sidelining of the Communist Youth League, and his hands-on management of the Chinese military, Xi has concentrated power in his own hands to a degree not seen in decades. Now he is taking his power one step further.
While the New York Times referred to the change as a “surprise move,” the only real surprise was the timing. Ever since the 19th Party Conference, when “Xi Jinping Thought” was written into China’s constitution, China-watchers—including this blog—have consistently predicted that Xi intended to circumvent existing term limits.
As it happened, the announcement came at the very end of Xi’s first five-year term of office. He has already been selected for his second term. And apparently, he has more in mind. Xi clearly feels comfortable making his intentions known now. Another leader might have waited a few more years in order to test out the waters. But Xi has been concentrating his power over the CCP—and the CCP’s power over China—for several years now. The abolition of term limits is a bold move that establishes long-term expectations about how China is going to function for the foreseeable future.
There have been several high-visibility signals of Xi’s lofty status over the past few years. In 2016, Xi was declared a “core leader,” an honorific term applied to Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin—but not Xi’s immediate predecessor Hu Jintao. That term advertised Xi’s status as the most prominent leader of his generation, also called a “paramount leader.” More recently, the CCP has declared Xi to be its “Lingxiu”—a exalted term for leader that was last used decades ago, most significantly in reference to Mao.
Speaking of titles, it is always good to remember that the “President” of the People’s Republic of China is not equivalent to the homonymous position in, say, the US or France. Xi’s true power comes from his leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, not his position as the formal head of state. Additionally, the same Chinese term that is now translated “President”—zhǔxí—was, until 1982, translated “Chairman.” That western news sources acquiesce in using the democratic-sounding title “President” is a propaganda coup in its own right.
True, a leader’s power is not always reflected in his official title. Deng Xiaoping famously ruled China even when his only official position was chairman of the China Bridge Association. But Xi has sent a strong signal that he intends to relinquish neither power nor the trappings of power.
The two-term limit was established by Deng Xiaoping after the disastrous and bloody Cultural Revolution that dictator Mao Zedong unleashed between 1966 and 1976. Deng, who had been ostracized by Mao, recognized that “it is not good to have an over-concentration of power.” His establishment of a more consensus-based style of governance, paired with the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, was viewed by many as a great accomplishment—perhaps even the first step on the path to democratization. Now all that is reversed.
Among the other changes to the constitution proposed by the Central Committee is the addition of this sentence: "The leadership of the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics." The fact that the Communist Party can easily amend the constitution to write its own power into the body of the text vividly illustrates the yawning gap between the real law-based constitutional governance found in democracies, and the communist version. The new text also reveals the emptiness of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”—the term just means whatever the CCP says it does.
Communist states like the People’s Republic of China are by definition one-party systems. And one-party systems are always in danger of decaying into one-man systems. With the elimination of term limits, Xi Jinping has pushed China one step closer to the latter, with all the dangers that entails.