Deng Yuwen says even with the removal of presidential term limits, Xi is too mindful of the lessons of history and the need to win over public opinion to consider holding power till his death
Xi Jinping’s grip on power will last as long as it is needed to get the job done, and no more. Illustration: Craig Stephens
Delegates to the National People’s Congress have overwhelmingly voted to pass a constitutional amendment to abolish the two-term limit imposed on China’s president, a controversial move that will allow the incumbent, Xi Jinping, to stay in power beyond 2023. The question is: will he become president for life? In other words, does the Communist Party want to make Xi a leader for life or just give him a longer term? China watchers are divided on this.
The government has kept its comments vague. When questioned by foreign media at a press briefing on March 4, parliamentary spokesman Zhang Yesui said only that the constitutional change would help to “strengthen and improve China’s leadership system”. The party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, was more elaborate. In one article on the significance on the constitutional revision, it made clear that party and state leaders were still expected to follow the rules on retirement. It even quoted from the party charter, which clearly states that “leading party cadres at all levels, whether elected through democratic procedure or appointed by a leading body, are not entitled to lifelong tenure”.
I believe that in scraping the term limits, Xi wants to centralise power so he can mobilise the government and people to work for the realisation of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation. So Xi’s grip on power will last as long as it is needed to get the job done, and no more.
It is unlikely he wants to hold on to power for life – for three reasons. One, to win support for the constitutional revision, Xi might have had to assure the other senior party leaders that he would not stay in power for life.
Were Xi to try to hold on to power for life, the party’s legitimacy would be called into question
The rules on leadership term limits were set by Deng Xiaoping to prevent a repeat of the Cultural Revolution, a tragedy inspired by the cult worship of Mao Zedong, who remained party chairman till his death in 1976. For the past 30-odd years, this system of political succession has shepherded the transfer of power from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao to Xi, and is seen as one of very few positive developments of China’s political reform. It enjoys broad support from party members and the wider society, and won’t be easily overturned.
To repeal the term limits, Xi would have needed the consent of senior party members. If he is forcing the rule change without such a consensus, he may worsen divisions in the leadership, which would impede the working of his own government. Thus, Xi is likely to have promised the party elite that he would not wreck the institution of political succession by staying in power for life.
Second, the negative reaction among many Chinese people to the removal of the term limits has put pressure on Xi and his team, and he will surely think twice about any attempt to remain in office indefinitely. Although there is no authoritative poll showing the number of people in support or opposition, among the middle class and liberals at least, many were baffled or upset by the move. This is reflected by the strong reaction on social media.
Of course, the people are powerless to stop the constitutional change, but the government’s move has eroded some public support for Xi and the Communist Party. Were Xi to try to hold on to power for life, he would upset even more people, and the party’s legitimacy would be called into question. This would undermine Xi’s ambition to unify the people in pursuit of the Chinese dream.
Moreover, the removal of the term limits has led to misgivings in the international community, especially in the West, where criticism of Xi is growing. This also undermines the realisation of the Chinese dream.
Is Beijing mindful of public perceptions of its actions? It has been reported that some editors at Xinhua News Agency are facing disciplinary action for highlighting the constitutional amendment to the term limits in an English-language report, thus drawing the world’s attention to it. If it is true, this shows the authorities care about upholding Xi’s public image.
It needs pointing out that the middle class in today’s China is a product of the norms and thinking of a modern society. Term limits being an integral part of a modern political system, their abolition would come at the expense of favourable public opinion. Xi would not be indifferent to the pressure of public opinion.
Third, over the course of history, examples abound of dictators coming to a bad end. A man of history himself, and one on a historic mission to restore China’s place in the world, Xi is likely to heed its lessons. Whether or not he is a dictator, Xi takes history seriously.
We can draw two lessons from history on the matter of term limits. First, no matter how exceptional the circumstances of a country, the tide of history favours placing term limits on its leader. Second, dictators who hung on to power were invariably ousted by a revolution or military coup, or abandoned by their own political party. Mao’s failure to hand over power was one reason for the tragedies in his final years. And Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was condemned by his people after his death. No matter how glorious the achievements, a leader who refuses to relinquish power when the time comes will be disgraced. This is the law of history.
So Xi is unlikely to want to be president for life. The question is, for how long then? My guess is he might stay on for three or four more terms, until 2032 or 2037. After all, the first phase of the Chinese dream ends in the nation achieving socialist modernisation – in 2035.