President for life: Xi move will cause huge problems for China

March 05, 2018 14:41
One day, President Xi Jinping will be replaced. But how will that happen? Who will replace him? Photo: Reuters

The decision by President Xi Jinping to end term limits for himself returns China to strongman rule, a style of government that many hoped had died with Mao Zedong in 1976. It also pits him directly against Deng Xiaoping’s political reforms, aimed at preventing the concentration of too much power in one man.

Mao was the leader of China from the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 until his death in 1976. He had no respect for institutions and, in fact, abolished the presidency in the 1960s. China had no president from the late 1960s until the early 1980s.

It wasn’t until the promulgation of the 1982 constitution that the presidency was revived. That constitution also saw the introduction of term limits.

Xi is now amending that constitution to give himself unlimited terms.

Actually, the presidency is a ceremonial office without real power. Xi’s power stems from his position as general secretary of the Communist Party of China and chairman of the Central Military Commission, two positions without term limits. But, when dealing in foreign affairs, it helps to have a presidential hat as well.

As the spokesman for the National People’s Congress, Zhang Yesui, explained at a press conference on Sunday, ending term limits on the presidency is in line with the party charter. Moreover, he said, “It is conducive to uphold the authority of the central committee of the party with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core, and also unified leadership.”

So this is a move to strengthen Xi and to prevent the emergence of rivals. It is not a move against term limits generally. The two-term constraint on the premier, Li Keqiang, continues to apply.

The introduction of term limits in the 1982 constitution was an integral part of Deng Xiaoping’s political reforms, along with retirement ages, to prevent the re-emergence of a Mao-like figure. Deng created a system of collective leadership, with the top man stepping down after 10 years in power.

Having observed at first hand Mao’s excesses, in particular the Cultural Revolution, Deng attempted to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of one person. He felt that having a good political system was more important than having a good leader because, Deng said, “if there is a good system, even evil men cannot do evil, but if there is not a good system, even good men cannot do good”.

In a talk on the reform of party and state leadership in 1980, Deng warned against “over-concentration of power” and “too many people holding two or more posts concurrently”.

The party today is doing precisely what Deng warned against, concentrating power in the hands of one person, who will wear three hats, now known as a trinity: leader of the party, state and military.

Deng’s proposed system was put into practice for the last 25 years. Thus, Jiang Zemin bowed out, albeit reluctantly, to allow Hu Jintao to become the next leader and Hu, in turn, stepped down to make way for Xi Jinping. That provided greater predictability and meant that no one had to die for there to be a change in leadership.

By abolishing term limits, the party is resurrecting the problem of succession. One day, Xi will be replaced. But how will that happen? Who will replace him?

The return of strongman rule is evidently seen as the way to ensure that China’s ascendancy continues in the next few decades. But it does accentuate an old problem: how will future successors be chosen? Will China return to a system of lifetime rule? Will there be coup attempts, as was the case with Mao? These are questions that inevitably arise with the eradication of term limits.

One immediate problem is what will happen five years from now. Xi will be able to serve a third term as president in 2023, but Li Keqiang, the premier, will have to step down from that post because of the two-term limit.

He is currently number two in the leadership and, five years from now, will at the age of 67 not have reached the customary retirement age. What will happen to him?

Presumably, Xi will be strong enough to force him into early retirement. But then, the can is just being kicked down the road. Inevitably, the question will arise: When will China have a new leader, and how will he be produced? The longer Xi clings to power, the more pressing that question will become, for China and for the world.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.