HONG KONG: The removal of term limits from the Chinese presidency has caused great consternation around the world.
Yet much about the change remains unclear. What does it mean? And should we even care?
China’s ruler has three major titles: Head of the Chinese Communist Party, head of the Central Military Commission and president of the People’s Republic of China. In other words, the ruler of China rules the party, the military and the nation.
The president, or ruler of the nation, is by far the least important of the ruler’s three roles. It is a largely ceremonial position.
Initially, in the early 1950s, the role was designed to have some real power, but that power was abolished for much of former Chinese ruler Mao Zedong’s reign.
In the post-Mao period, China’s leaders rethought how they wanted China’s political system to look and how they would maintain Communist-Party rule.
The goal was to ensure that power was not concentrated in one person, to remove jobs for life and to allow China to reintegrate with the world.
CHANGING ROLE OF THE PRESIDENCY
The redesigned presidency was one solution to these problems. It was established to ensure China as a nation had a titular leader (as distinct from the Party, whose general secretary actually ran the country).
Crucially, the presidency is governed by China’s constitution rather than the party’s constitution.
For the first decade or so, the presidency was not held by the actual ruler of China. The position was instead filled by leaders whose seniority required a high-ranking title. They were leaders of high party rank whom the party people actually running China did not want to hold a great amount of power (such as Li Xiannian, appointed when the presidency was re-established in 1982).
The presidency changed as China’s international commitments grew. It became an office that allowed the ruler to meet heads of state as equals. Previously, whoever ran China could only do that with the heads of other communist-party states.
So the presidency only became effectively rolled in together with the head of the Party and the head of the military as the titles belonging to China’s ruler in 1993.
LOGICAL CONTINUATION, BUT REMOVAL OF CHECKS AND BALANCES
Now the term limits have been removed from the presidency. This brings the national leadership into line with the Party and military leadership, neither of which have term limits. This explains why Chinese official media call the removal of term limits a logical continuation of the ruler’s power.
The removal of term limits on the presidency does though make it more likely that Xi Jinping will stay on as president, and that his international role will continue longer than first anticipated.
It also makes clear that Xi wants to highlight his personal power. Presidential term limits are one of the few checks on the ruler embedded in the state constitution and could be challenged under China’s legal system. Removing term limits is a step back for the rule of law in China, because it removes the ability of another body to place a constraint on the ruler.
Removing term limits on the presidency also brings into question the system of orderly transition and succession between leaders.
The last two transitions in the Chinese leadership have created a norm that rulers only serve two terms in line with the constitutional rule of the presidency. Even so, during the first of these transitions, then Chinese ruler Jiang Zemin did not allow a full transition of powers constitutionally.
He retained this power as head of the military for two years after his formal retirement as president and secretary general of the Party, not only denying clear air to his successor, Hu Jintao, but also making it difficult for the government and the army to have an unambiguous constitutional relationship.
Much of the fuss about Xi removing term limits is because he had already shown signs of wanting to ignore relatively recently established norm. In the October 2017 change in administration, marking the shift from Xi’s first to second term, Xi failed to appoint a clear successor.
The changes Xi has made are worrisome for a number of reasons. They reinforce other changes to institutions and rules and paint a picture of a ruler who is centralising power in his image and personifying power rather than being leader of a team.
The lack of term limits on all of Xi’s positions as ruler makes the threat that he will stay on indefinitely real.
But Xi’s personal powers still have limits. He himself has very few delegated direct powers; power still resides with the Party’s collective leadership group.
So Xi has to take all major changes to the Politburo before he gets his way. The removal of term limits went through this process. Xi happens to be rather good at persuading the Politburo, but that doesn’t mean that his actions are unrestrained.
Xi has demonstrated that he is currently in command — but he is also playing a dangerous game. Removing the term limits on his power has the short-term gain of entrenching his authority, but it still may not end well.
Consolidating Xi’s power under the Party might make more people follow what he has to say.
But it will also mean that more people will expect him to solve China’s many problems, and, as those expectations grow, Xi could well have driven away the officials and others who have precisely the knowledge and the entrepreneurship that he needs to solve problems that face China now.
Xi has shown that he can wear the crown. The question is whether he can bear the cross.
Ryan Manuel is Director of Policy Research at the Asia Global Institute, Hong Kong University. This commentary first appeared in the East Asian Forum. Read it here.