Xi Jinping decides to abolish presidential term limits
BLOGGERS in China surpassed themselves in their ingenuity after the Communist Party announced its plan to get rid of presidential term limits, which would have required Xi Jinping to step down as head of state in 2023. One online commentator posted a picture of Winnie-the-Pooh hugging a jar of honey, with the caption “Find the thing you love and stick with it.” The Bear of Very Little Brain is used in China as code for the portly Mr Xi—the post was swiftly deleted by humourless censors. Others posted mock condom advertisements with tag lines such as “Doing it twice is not enough” and “I like how you’re always on top.” (The manufacturer solemnly informed readers that these were fakes.) Other banned terms included “I disagree”, “Animal Farm” (the novel), “emigrate”, “board the plane” (dengji, which also sounds like “ascend the throne”) and “Yuan Shikai”, an early 20th-century warlord who declared himself emperor and died six months later.
Censorship makes judging public reaction in China hard. But there was more inventive mockery in response to the startling announcement on February 25th than there was during the country’s biggest political event of the past few years, a party congress last October. There was also some unusual open dissent. A prominent former editor, Li Datong, and a well-known businesswoman, Wang Ying, both appealed to the legislature through WeChat, a social-media platform, demanding that it reject what Ms Wang called an “outright betrayal”. Many Chinese, it seems, regard scrapping term limits as a return to the bad old days of strongman rule.
Terms of art
Such limits may not matter much in themselves (they will be formally abolished at an annual session of the rubber-stamp parliament, which starts on March 5th). The presidency is a weak office. Mr Xi could stay in power as the party’s general secretary and military chief, to which term limits do not apply. But the abolition is still important partly because it is the clearest evidence that Mr Xi does, in fact, plan to ignore convention that party chiefs step down after ten years, and keep all of his jobs after 2023. It also pierces the veil of politics and shows what kind of ruler he wants to be. At a time when he is trying to boost China’s image globally as a modern, outward-looking and responsible state, the political system he governs seems premodern, opaque and treacherous.
The system itself is extremely unusual. China has two ladders of authority: the government and the party. The party hierarchy outranks the state one. In other countries, the ministers of finance and foreign affairs (government jobs) are usually the most important ones after the president or prime minister. In China, they are not even in the top 25. Neither man is a member of the Politburo, let alone its inner sanctum, the Politburo Standing Committee. Formally, the People’s Liberation Army is controlled by the party, not the government. In one respect, though, Chinese politics is all too normal. As with other Leninist systems, it is bedevilled by the problem of leadership succession. Of the 11 party leaders since 1921 (seven since the party seized power in 1949), only one—Mr Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao—has stepped down from all his posts in accordance with a timetable. Seven were executed or purged.
In the 1980s, reacting to the chaos of the Mao era, Deng Xiaoping tried to make the system more orderly and predictable by introducing new rules, norms and precedents. These included the reinstitution of the post of president (there had not been one since 1968), along with a two-term limit for the holder of that office as well as the vice-president. Mandatory retirement ages were also introduced. After Mao’s one-man freak show, Deng argued that China needed “collective leadership”. In a speech in 1980 he said the system should avoid an “over-concentration of power”, which, he warned, was “liable to give rise to arbitrary rule”. He said it should make a clearer separation between the party and the government. And it had to “solve the problem of succession in leadership”. Before he resigned in 1989 as head of the party’s Central Military Commission, Deng said his final task was to “take the lead in establishing a retirement system”.
As the abolition of term limits shows, he failed—or at least, his reforms failed to rein in Mr Xi. Instead of avoiding an over-concentration of powers, the president has made himself chairman of everything. Instead of separating party from state, he has injected party control into areas which had once been relatively free of it, such as private companies (see article). Now he has cast aside Deng’s efforts to introduce a system of succession by timetable.
Deng’s reforms also failed in a more obvious way—they did not change the political system as he had promised. Before Mr Xi took over, Jiang Zemin, Deng’s successor, was still influential behind the scenes, though he had retired in 2004 (see chart). In 2012 Mr Xi’s rival, Bo Xilai, was arrested and jailed following a scandal involving corruption and the murder of a British businessman on the orders of Mr Bo’s wife. Mr Xi has used his anti-graft campaign to rid himself of other rivals—most recently Sun Zhengcai, who was party chief of the south-western region of Chongqing, the same job that Mr Bo had held. This hardly looks like a predictable, orderly system.
The events leading up to the removal of term limits show how murky politics remains. The proposal came from the party’s Central Committee, comprising its most senior 200-odd officials. It was dated January 26th. But the committee did not meet that day. It had met a week earlier. That meeting produced a communiqué about constitutional reform, which did not mention that term limits had been discussed. So last weekend’s news that they would be abolished was a complete surprise. Curiously, it was revealed by the English-language service of Xinhua, the government’s main news-agency, hours before it was released in Chinese (heads rolled at Xinhua because of this).
It is not unusual for important party decisions to be circulated first among party members before they are made public. But for an important one such as this to be kept under wraps for so long, without a leak, suggests that relatively few senior officials were involved. The length of time before the announcement may also be an indication of unexpected opposition. There has been surprisingly little commentary in state-run media on such a momentous change, further suggesting a lack of elite consensus. The term-limit abolition was not even announced separately. The news emerged only as part of a list of constitutional amendments, buried at the bottom of the second page of the party’s flagship newspaper, People’s Daily.
Mr Xi’s constitutional changes—which go beyond scrapping term limits—could make the political system even more opaque and draconian. Top of the list of revisions to be approved by the legislature in March is one that will replace the phrase “socialist legal system” with “socialist rule by law”—making it clear that courts should be a tool of party control.
The current constitution mentions the leading role of the party only in its preamble. The revised version will refer to it in article one, declaring that: “The socialist system is the fundamental system of the People’s Republic of China. The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is the most essential feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Party and state could hardly become more amalgamated.
No less important, the parliament will approve what looks like a new administrative branch that merges elements of the party, government, police and judiciary into a powerful organisation called the National Supervision Commission. This will incorporate the party’s discipline-enforcement body but work closely with the courts and report to the legislature—ie, there will be no separation of powers. It will be able to interrogate, search, detain and punish any official, whether from the party or the government bureaucracy, in cases involving corruption, violations of ethics and ideological deviation.
Such changes are controversial. Han Dayuan of Renmin University in Beijing suggests that some of them—notably the abolition of term limits—may even undermine the constitution. For years scholars like him have been trying, as Deng did, to devise ways of reconciling constitutional norms with one-party rule. They fear that Mr Xi has turned his back on this effort.
Look on my Works, ye Mighty
So why has he done this? He could have stayed on as general secretary. His ideology, called “Xi Jinping Thought for a New Era”, would still have been in the party’s own charter, giving him the status of final arbiter in any dispute. The answer must be that it is because of the kind of leader he wants to be: with his power on full display, not hidden behind the scenes. A reason for wanting this is that he is trying to project Chinese influence round the world. Because of diplomatic protocol it is easier to meet foreign leaders as president than as general secretary. Another reason may be that he faces opposition (not least because of his anti-corruption campaign) and must continuously show rivals who is in charge. It is even possible, as People’s Daily argued online on February 26th, that staying as president and party chief for another ten years or more will lead to more consistent, long-term policy-making and perhaps enable him to get to grips with some of the economy’s entrenched problems.
Perhaps. But it is equally likely that the changes will increase what Chinese observers call the “bad emperor” risk: that if Mr Xi is set on a course that will prove a big mistake, nobody will be able to stop him. The abolition of term limits may be just such a blunder.
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