A greater helmsman? Xi abolishes term limits, but a leader too long at the helm seldom works out well for any country
Ten years is about the most in which a leader can provide effective governance, in a democratic system. Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, was Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. Her policies transformed Britain. But in the end, with her popularity declining, her Conservative Party forced her out of office. Some years later, Tony Blair suffered the same fate. In 1951, the US legislated a two term limit for its president. France arrived at the same spot in 2008, after some experiment. As for authoritarian states, it’s more difficult to assess a Stalin or a Mao but as rulers they overstayed their time to the detriment of their country.
Xi Jinping’s move to remove term limits for the office of the president is portentous since, the Communist Party of China (CPC) Constitution has no limits for his other arguably more important hat, General Secretary of the Party. Till the 1990s the Chinese presidency was really a symbolic office. The person who mattered was Mao Zedong, General Secretary from 1949 to his demise in 1976. His rule was a disaster. That experience persuaded Deng Xiaoping, his next effective successor in the 1980s to insist on term limits, which were written into the PRC Constitution.
For Party offices there were norms but no rules, and likewise there were none for the Chair of the Central Military Commission (CMC) which runs the PLA. Jiang Zemin served in that position for 15 years. Though Deng had held various high posts in the Mao era before being purged, as the paramount ruler in the 1980s Deng himself did not hold any position when he led China into far-reaching economic reforms. His only official position was honorary chairman of the China Bridge Association, though, importantly, he was Chairman of the CMC.
It was in the Jiang Zemin era that the party boss or General Secretary also became concurrently the President of PRC (and Chairman of CMC). Xi has been steadily accumulating and centralising power ever since he took office as General Secretary in November 2012 and President in March 2014. He used an anti-corruption campaign to bring down powerful politicians like Bo Xilai, Zhou Yonkang and Sun Zhengcai, and bring the PLA under his control. By taking personal charge of key Leading Small Groups – supra ministerial institutions – on foreign policy, economic reform, internet security, military reform he has immeasurably tightened his grip on the government.
Over the years, the CPC propaganda machine has seen him being addressed as “a leader of the core” and “lingxiu” or revered leader, a term used previously only for Mao. China stands at the cusp of a very complex transformation. Having largely eliminated poverty through its economic miracle, it must now become a rich country, or stagnate in the middle-income trap. Also, as a rising power it must avoid the Thucydides Trap of conflict with the US.
CPC knows its authority depends on continuing economic prosperity in the country. But the old economic model is no longer sustainable, and though CPC has taken impressive steps to take the country to higher economic and political levels, it faces huge headwinds. In the global game of Snakes and Ladders China has so far hit the ladders up, but higher up the board is populated by snakes.
We need to place these developments in context. Altering the term limits today does not mean Xi will automatically follow through as President for life. Xi, an authoritarian leader, is no monster like Mao. He is a diligent, hardworking leader who has systematically advanced China’s interests. There is always a worry, though, of the “Bad Emperor” syndrome indicated by Francis Fukuyama, and the hubris that comes with power. Things go well to start with, then things get out of control, a leader loses his touch, and the country gets stuck with him. Thereafter it sometimes becomes an excruciatingly long and costly haul.