Observers are correct to be concerned about the ramifications of extending Xi’s presidency. But comparisons to the Mao era may be premature.
The announcement that China plans to alter its constitution next week to allow Xi Jinping to remain president beyond two terms has create concerns both domestically and internationally. Critics view this as additional evidence of a power grab and Xi’s consolidation of power unlike any others in the post-Deng period — this on top of the addition of “Xi Jinping Thought” to the party constitution last October.
President Xi is not the first Chinese leader to extend his rule. Yuan Shikai also pushed reforms to allow himself to be president for more than two five-year terms, later (in 1915) declaring himself emperor, actions which in part led to the decay of the fledging Republic of China (ROC). Chiang Kai-shek, by then controlling only Taiwan, also remained in power after the initial constitutional limit of two six-year terms. The potential extension of Xi’s rule, however, would be the first since the establishment of term limits established by Deng Xiaoping.
Identifying intentions within a party that rarely provides explicit explanations for decisions encourages conjecture and fear. The lack of a named successor after last year’s 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could suggest a lack of consensus within the party for a suitable successor, a party in which consensus-based leadership remained the hallmark in the post-Deng era. After all, both of Xi’s predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, and even Xi himself, had a long grooming period where Chinese became familiar with the heir apparent before their ascension.
At this point it is not clear whether these changes would specifically encourage a president-for-life scenario, although many analysts have already raised such concerns. Continuing Xi’s presidency could simply allow more time to develop a consensus candidate. A more likely explanation suggests a sign of party consensus, even if it is based on Xi’s consolidation of power generating significant political costs in considering a replacement. Nor, despite post-Deng emphasis on term limits, is this inconsistent with the party’s preference for stability and predictability.
The proposed move immediately drew criticism abroad, but also from relatively unlikely sources within China. For example, Li Datong, former editor of Freezing Point, a supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper, openly opposed the change in a post on WeChat, a post which needless to say was quickly removed by censors. Others are concerned that such concentration of power could result in purges of Xi’s rivals beyond those caught up in his anti-corruption efforts, purges unseen in the post-Mao era. Meanwhile, the Trump administration refrained from criticizing the change, claiming it was an internal matter, in contrast to longstanding American policy of at least nominally supporting efforts to promote Chinese democratization.
Analogues and differences
Taking China’s political institutions at face value, the system most closely resembles a parliamentary system where the legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), appoints both a president who serves as head of state and a premier who functions as head of government. Assuming for a moment that we treat President Xi like a Western prime minister, then term limits in and of themselves would be rather peculiar. Western parliamentary systems rarely have term limits for prime ministers, resulting in several long-tenured heads of government. The U.K.’s Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher served over 10 and 11 years respectively. Canada’s Pierre Trudeau served for 11 years, with another non-contiguous four-year term). India’s Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi served for 16 years, with Manmohan Singh serving 10 years. P. J. Patterson served for 14 years consecutively as Prime Minister of Jamaica.
The key difference, of course, is the institutional constraints on prime ministers in democracies. Parties in democracies must face elections and a call of no confidence can remove a prime minister at any time. One’s own party may also replace a prime minister, as frequently seen in Japan under the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), for reasons ranging from factional disputes to stave off future election losses. Xi Jinping faces none of these constraints. Despite lip service to the eight additional parties allowed in China, the CCP faces no serious threat to its rule. The NPC, while more assertive than in decades past, still serves more as a rubber stamp than a check on executive power. Public sentiment also plays little role in maintaining Xi’s position. Nor does Xi have to consider the return of former leaders Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao to power, nor a rising charismatic figure within the party, especially after the fall of Bo Xilai. The lack of institutional checks on power potentially allow for otherwise difficult reforms, but also risks mistakes on a larger scale.
The key difference, of course, is the institutional constraints on prime ministers in democracies. Parties in democracies must face elections and a call of no confidence can remove a prime minister at any time.
In addition, despite the relative stability in succession in the post-Deng era, the institutionalization of the succession process remains unfinished. Succession remains a crucial challenge to authoritarian regimes, and the weakness of party and government institutions in part explains the turbulent interim between the death of Mao Zedong and the ascendancy of Deng Xiaoping. While both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao left the office of the president after their two terms, Jiang arguably did not leave gracefully, what with his attempts to hold onto the head position of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and appearing publicly with Hu as an equal, thus undermining the transition of authority. Xi, by his own admission, claims to have thwarted an attempt by disgraced cadres to usurp power in an attempted coup, while extending his term may also be a sign of Xi’s unwillingness to relinquish power. Even a sanguine view of two orderly transfers of leadership post-Deng without a leadership crisis does not suggest a deeper institutionalization or wider acceptance of a transition process. Even if Xi’s extension is short-lived, this change sets a precedent for future leaders to thwart such limits on tenure.
The changing of term limits provides an opportunity for Xi to further consolidate his power and change the role of Chinese president from a largely ceremonial role to one more consistent with presidential executives elsewhere. This also allows more time for potentially difficult reforms where Xi faces entrenched party interests, ranging from continued anti-corruption efforts, where Xi seems particularly active, to increased marketization and privatization of the Chinese economy, where Xi seems reluctant to make necessary structural changes.
However, the relaxation of term limits poses clear challenges as well. A concentration of power focuses greater attention on Xi, who will have less cover during political and economic crises and thereby give factions within the party less reason to believe their turn will come, potentially opting for options beyond the institutional framework. The CCP under Xi continues to struggle in its attempts to redefine its core ideology, an existential challenge created by decades of economic reform and the inclusion of capitalists into the party. Yet a viable alternative to vague Marxist platitudes other than national pride and nationalism have yet to emerge in a coherent form. Meanwhile, the concentration of power risks silencing the rarely seen but often discussed intra-party debates, whether faction-based or on other grounds, thus diminishing the likelihood of fresh ideas within the party that are needed to generate a coherent overarching ideology while encouraging the type of personalistic leadership that frequently dooms authoritarian regimes.
To distract from the domestic unpopularity of relaxing term limits, Xi may engage in bolder foreign policy actions. Xi’s stance on Taiwan, claiming that unification must occur sooner rather than later, is unlikely to abate with another term, with pressure to make progress on unification, even if by force, prior to the CCP’s 100th anniversary in 2021. However, Jiang Zemin also seemed impatient on Taiwan, presumably desiring unification as a means to solidify his legacy after the handover of Hong Kong and Macau in 1997 and 1999 respectively; lack of progress on this front, including a growing Taiwanese identity, only creates a greater challenge for Xi. Beijing’s heavy hand in Hong Kong further discourages Taiwanese interest in unification talks and has even increased support among Hong Kongers for Taiwanese independence, a trend that is unlikely to change in the short term and which may incentivize forceful action by Xi to prevent the regime’s fear of a permanent separate Taiwan. Similarly, an emboldened Xi faced with a declining U.S. presence in the region would be expected to press claims in the South China Sea, and strengthen other authoritarian regimes in the region, such as Cambodia after the recent cut in U.S. aid to the country.
Observers are correct to be concerned about the ramifications of extending Xi’s presidency, but comparisons to the Mao era may be premature. Despite many similarities in terms of repression and concentration of power, Xi has shown none of the impulsive instincts indicative of Mao’s leadership that often resulted in disaster. As Perry Link stated, “one Mao was enough.” Nor does greater assertiveness on Xi’s part necessarily mean an abandonment of his track record of pragmatic rational policy-making focused on party survival. However, the end of term limits does increase the likelihood of unintended conflicts, especially internationally, as Xi may find himself increasingly surrounded by people who are unwilling to question his policies and determined to justify the extension of his powers through tangible policy achievements.