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Moment that mattered: China removes presidential term limits

President Xi Jinping takes a public oath of allegiance to the constitution in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, 17th March 2018

President Xi Jinping takes a public oath of allegiance to the constitution in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, 17th March 2018. Photo: Stephen Shaver/UPI/PA Images

This article was published in Delayed Gratification in March 2018

On 11th March there were tears of joy in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The Chinese parliament had approved the removal of term limits on the presidency, with only two out of its nearly 3,000 delegates voting against the motion – and some officials couldn’t contain their emotion. Xi Jinping would no longer have to step down at the end of his second term in 2023.

Elsewhere, the scrapping of term limits was the cause of some alarm. Victor H Mair wrote in Newsweek that Xi was now a “dictator for life” and another prominent US scholar of China, Susan Shirk, used the same phrase in an interview with the Guardian. Even before this apparent consolidation of power, the label ‘Chairman of Everything’ was widely used to describe Xi’s wide-ranging brief. In addition to being president, he is the head of the Communist Party and commander-in-chief of the military, not to mention many other titles which make him a key player across many areas of state policy-making.

It is for this very reason, however, that Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, thinks the significance of the removal of presidential term limits may have been overstated. “They are doing something that doesn’t seem to be that necessary,” says Brown, stressing that the role of president is largely ceremonial and carries far less power than Xi’s position as head of the Communist Party. The author of new book The World According to Xi Jinping suggests that the constitutional change is more a declaration of intent than a straightforward power-grab, stating that it can be viewed as “a clear sign that Xi is very ambitious and very confident”, but not necessarily as evidence that he intends to wield unconstrained political power for the rest of his life.

A power-grab may still lie ahead, however. There is the possibility that Xi will increase the power of the Chinese presidency, which would make the removal of term limits far more significant. “It’s probably about creating political space for himself,” adds Brown. “It suggests he’s trying to give himself some options in the future. While the presidency is not a very powerful role right now, power can shift from one place to another.”

Xi’s certainly a super-visible politician, but I’m not sure that he’s super-powerful

The long-term political outlook in China is further complicated by unwritten rules in the Communist Party, which has governed the country since 1949, which mean that senior officials retire at the age of 68. Brown suggests that the 65-year-old Xi might now be able to comply with this protocol and still retain his power, by stepping down as party leader and staying on indefinitely in a beefed-up presidential role.

In May 2018, Forbes declared Xi “the world’s most powerful person”, but Brown cautions against hyperbole. “Xi’s certainly a super-visible politician, but I’m not sure that he’s super-powerful.” In China, he says, power is rooted in the party rather than in the individual and Xi, a loyal party servant, is “dependent on it for his power”.

At the moment Xi appears to be popular both inside and outside the Communist Party, as the result of China’s economic and geopolitical success. “However, if the economy wasn’t so great or the international situation was less conducive it’s perfectly possible you’d get opposition to Xi,” Brown adds. “Opposition is not explicit at the moment but it can appear fairly quickly.”

Brown says that there’s a strong public feeling in China that the country’s “moment of destiny has arrived”. Xi is currently associated with Chinese success and it’s possible that the removal of term limits will help him retain power for decades to come. But the future may yet hold surprises. “We are living in unorthodox times both for China and the world,” says Brown. “So at the moment all we can say is that all options are open for Xi.”

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