By: Simon Fischer
China’s National People’s Congress voted recently to pass a constitutional amendment that abolished the country’s Mao-era two-term limit on the office of the president. Current president Xi Jinping was expected to step down in 2023 at the end of his second term, but this amendment allows him to rule well beyond that date. The amendment poses questions: What should other world leaders think of this move? Is this the final power-consolidating move that will allow Xi to rule freely as long as he is alive? Does he simply want a longer term to finish overseeing China’s rise to world prominence? No one has made an indication either way, so leaders and onlookers alike have little basis to decode Xi’s latest power-consolidating move.
Xi grew up in rural mainland China, the son of a prominent member of Mao’s Communist party. His political career began to develop around the age of 25 after his father was reintegrated into the party after being purged during Mao’s rule. His career first began to pick up steam thanks to his father’s patronage network, but soon Xi began to make a name for himself. He was described as “exceptionally ambitious and focused” and “supremely pragmatic” as a young adult, focused solely on climbing China’s political ladder. After seeing his own outspoken father purged by Mao, Xi moved quietly through the political world, doing his best not to make any enemies or to draw too much attention to himself.
He finally ascended to the presidency in 2012 and began a concentrated campaign to stamp out corruption in the party, prosecuting notorious figures such as Bo Xilai, Sun Zhengcai, and Zhou Yongkang. Yet he also has implemented a widespread censorship campaign unlike anything seen in such a prominent nation in the 21st century. Is Xi a committed party loyalist dedicated to making China great, or a reckless authoritarian solely concerned with accumulating power? Does he truly want to turn China into his autocracy, or is there a deeper reason for his abolishment of term limits?
I believe you can analyze and interpret his and China’s history however you wish, but Xi has never been one to make such a move without weighing the consequences. In contrast to his neighbor and true strongman Kim Jong-Un’s pomp and bombastic rhetoric, Xi is stoic and calculating so as to appear in contrast to the impulsive nature of other dictators past and present, even disappearing for a time in 2012.
Why, then, would Xi seemingly clear the path for himself to reign for the foreseeable future with no set end date? One theory is that he wants to give himself enough time to finish overseeing China transformation into a world power. Under Xi, China’s GDP has soared to over $11 trillion, and the country’s rapid urbanization and development into a world economic power has been a sight to behold. For him to be forced out based on a decades-old rule could, in his mind, unravel everything he has accomplished in his term. Either way, his intentions likely do not parallel the “unheeding-Communist-despot” and “absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely” nightmares other world leaders might be having about his recent moves.
No matter what Xi’s plan is, this puts world leaders in a bind politically. Do you call him out for his seemingly anti-democratic ways, or lay low and see what he does free from term limits? I think leaders have to take some sort of public stance given the worldwide outrage following the decision, but with no word on why it happened or what he plans to do, it seems risky to label him too harshly. He could counter with simply saying he wants to finish overseeing China’s transformation or something similar, leaving one open to appearing paranoid.
There are certainly pros and cons associated with either method of response to Xi, but it should be interesting to watch what Xi does with the burden of 2023 off his back, and how leaders such as Trump, Putin, and Un respond.