If passed, this week’s proposal by China’s Communist Party to scrap presidential term limits clears the way for President Xi Jinping to remain in power indefinitely. In many countries, the move is being reported as part of a trend towards authoritarianism (The New York Times). Western governments have been mostly silent about China’s shift.
On February 25, Chinese state broadcaster Xinhua announced Xi’s draft proposals (Xinhua English), which set out to eliminate presidential and vice presidential term limits – among others amendments (see below). The proposal is expected to pass when China’s “rubber-stamp parliament” (Reuters) opens on March 5 and formally elects President Xi Jinping for a second five-year term.
Asked to comment on the Chinese plan to end presidential term limits, a spokesperson for the United States government suggested that the country that once committed to “promote democracy abroad” as part of its national security strategy after the fall of the Soviet Union has little intention of interfering in China’s domestic affairs.
The United Kingdom and the European Union haven’t replied to WikiTribune‘s request for comment.
There’s little the West can do to stop China from instituting autocratic measures within the country, according to Lijia Zhang, a Beijing-based social commentator and author of “Socialism is Great!” A Worker’s Memoir of the New China. “I am not sure what other governments can do,” she told WikiTribune via email. “China is playing an increasingly important role in the world. People wouldn’t want to upset the regime, or deal with a huge chaotic country with 1.3 billion population.”
Even if Western governments feel ill at ease with Xi’s proposal, Xi hasn’t actually done anything yet, according to Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of African and Oriental Studies, a London university.
“By Xi Jinping simply outlining that this is now something that can happen five years before it actually will happen, we have really very little basis to attack him for that,” said Tsang. “Because he hasn’t even done anything. How can governments be expected to put pressure on China since the Chinese don’t have to respond to them anyway?”
“Then you have the issue of the basic reality of great power politics. When you have leading great powers not following international law, by and large they get away with it.”
Not as quiet in China
Since the measures were made public on February 25, some Chinese netizens took to social media to complain about the measure, using oblique language and “memes” to evade censorship. Some posts drew comparisons with the authoritarian regime of China’s neighbor, North Korea. As has become common practice, Chinese censors quickly banned dozens of terms online that appeared to be critical of the government (see WikiTribune‘s coverage).
In response to the controversy, Reuters reports that the People’s Daily, an official newspaper of the CPC, said that the removal of term limits does not amount to life tenure. Xinhua editors responsible for the English-language original report were sacked and the broadcaster’s chiefs “had to write a self-criticism,” according to an article in Cantonese tweeted by Aaron McNicholas, a journalist at Storyful.
(XY Chen, a WikiTribune community member, corroborated Aaron McNicholas’s account in TALK.)
Xinhua editors responsible for the English-language report on the removal of presidential term limits were dismissed and the agency’s leaders had to write a self-criticism The manner of the announcement was reportedly seen as a “serious political mistake” https://t.co/Hx3f9aQYai
With the world’s second-largest economy (World Economic Forum), China stands at the forefront of countries with authoritarian models of governance.
In recent years, Turkey, Russia, the Philippines, and several Eastern European countries have become more authoritarian. Unlike these countries, however, China has achieved remarkable economic growth over the past four decades. Its authoritarian political model is increasingly being used as a template for other would-be autocrats.
“Beijing now talks about something called the ‘China solution’ – an efficient and legitimate authoritarian state which is a working alternative to the West,” says Richard McGregor, former China bureau chief for The Financial Times and author of The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.
The move to end term limits may be symbolic, since the presidency holds little formal power in China, according to Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London (KCL). The presidency is “a largely nominal office in the Chinese political system” (South China Morning Post), but Xi holds more formidable positions as leader of China’s Communist Party and its armed forces, which do not have term limits (The New York Times).
“But [the end of term limits] is a declaration of intent, and is probably meant to be a sign of the leadership wanting to appear confident, unified, and highly focussed, whatever the reality underneath,” said Brown. “About that, we and the rest of the world know nothing.”
The internal dealings of Chinese politics are notoriously opaque, although some say President Xi has made advances in creating a more transparent governance culture (The Diplomat). But piecing together an accurate and impartial picture remains difficult.
Experts point to three main reasons: 1) Xi has consolidated enough power that he feels able to push through a “controversial” proposal; 2) He genuinely feels he alone can lead China in its economic transformation into a middle-income economy over the next couple of decades; 3) He’s better positioned to avoid the fate he brought down on other senior Communist Party leaders, whom he purged with little regard for CPC tradition.
The proposal comes at a point when the Chinese president “has amassed [a] huge amount of power since taking his position and become the most powerful leader after Chairman Mao,” says Zhang. “He feels that he needs to be in total charge in order to realize his vision: to fight corruption, reduce poverty, upgrading its economy, see through his ‘one belt, one road’ initiative and restore China’s former glory.”
KCL’s Brown says Xi’s power is predicated on making China a middle-income country by 2021, the first of the president’s Centenary goals.
“[Xi] is the chief figure in a leadership which has stewardship over the Party and China when it finally wins its moment of justice after the humiliations visited upon it in modern history,” said Brown.
The Global Times, a widely read Chinese state-run newspaper, published an editorial shoring up the proposal the day after it was announced. The editorial argued that to “remove the two-term limit of the Chinese president can help … improve the institution of leadership of the CPC and the nation.”
Tsang disagrees with that assessment, saying China has enjoyed stability in the past 25 years despite being ruled by three different leaders, including Xi. “There was leadership change in the last 25 years … It was very stable, it was doing very well,” he said.
Xi intends to do away with two-term presidential limits “because he can,” says Tsang. But the president might also be thinking of ways to stay a step ahead of his rivals within the Communist Party.
“It’s a controversial plan that is not particularly welcome in many quarters within the Communist Party or within the population at large,” Tsang told WikiTribune. “It’s not something Xi Jinping could have done earlier.” Tsang said Xi now feels sufficiently secure in power to propose a measure that breaks with decades of political tradition.
Other significant proposals
The draft proposals also elevates Xi Jinping’s “Thought”, installed into the CPC’s constitution in October 2017 (NYT), into the preamble of the country’s constitution (NYT). The New York Times describes Xi’s Thought as “a blueprint for consolidating and strengthening power at three levels: the nation, the party and Mr. Xi himself.”
Another adds new language about “the great revival of the Chinese race” (Nikkei Asian Review), according to The Conversation, a news website. Xi said in a lengthy speech in October 2017 that he intends to restore the Middle Kingdom to its former power (Nikkei).
Chinese embassies have also already begun pressuring the Chinese diaspora to support Xi’s expansionist aims, according to The Conversation. It reports that Canadians with relatives in China are expected to show their support for the Communist party.
A leader for life?
The Global Times editorial said the proposal to end term limits doesn’t necessarily mean the Chinese leader will have a “lifelong tenure”. It’s unclear how long President Xi will hang on to the reins of power.
“Xi Jinping is not someone who is loved. He is feared within the party leadership. So if he steps down, can he be sure that he would himself would not become a second Zhou Yongkang?” said Tsang, referring to a senior party official who in 2015 was jailed for life for bribery, abuse of power, and disclosing state secrets as part of Xi’s ongoing and “ruthless” (BBC) anti-corruption purges.
“The assumption at the moment is that China is strong and stable under Xi, because it looks this way,” said Brown. “But appearances mean very little, and accruing all these titles in the end does not mean Xi is in a better position to answer the huge challenges the country faces.”