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From authoritarianism to dictatorship? China set to scrap term limits

From authoritarianism to dictatorship? China set to scrap term limits

The annual session of China’s rubber-stamp legislature opened on 5 March and the two-week meeting will see delegates approve a number of significant proposals. Chief amongst them is a motion to remove the two-term cap on presidential tenures, which will have ramifications for China’s domestic and foreign policy long into the future.

The National People’s Congress has never voted down a government proposal and we fully expect the revision to scrap presidential term limits to be approved this week by the required two-thirds of delegates. However, the number of abstentions may provide a clue as to how much opposition the controversial measure faces within the party. China’s army of internet censors have been working overtime to bury an outpouring of critical commentary, underscoring the risks that Xi is willing to take to mould China in his image.

All Hail Emperor Xi

The scrapping of presidential term limits paves the way for Xi Jinping to stay on as head of state beyond 2023, which will provide him with more time and authority to push through his policy agenda amid lingering bureaucratic resistance and opposition from vested interests. Top of the list is tackling debt, poverty and pollution, strengthening the Party’s grip over society and the economy, as well as bringing about the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ on the world stage.

There has been a flurry of editorials in the state-owned media arguing (unconvincingly) that the revision will not automatically confer tenures for life. Yet Xi will now likely remain in personal charge as long as he so chooses. While Xi’s ‘New Era’ is earmarked to last until 2050, the 64-year old leader may well be aiming to stay on until his newly created 2035 milestone to achieve ‘socialist modernisation’.

The proposed change is the latest evidence that Xi is centralising power and moving away from an institutionalised leadership model rooted in collective decision-making, fixed term limits and party rules on retirement, which was introduced by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s. It was always an imperfect system: for example, Jiang Zemin remained highly influential throughout Hu Jintao’s decade in power (2002-2012), even once he had handed over his formal titles. Nevertheless, a system governed by norms brought a degree of predictability and stability to elite politics after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

Relative importance of foreign policy on the rise

The head of state role has traditionally been the weakest of the ‘big three’ leadership posts that recent Chinese leaders have held concurrently - less important than being the General Secretary of the Communist Party or the Chairman of the Central Military Commission - and is the only one of the three to have an explicit term limit. Xi clearly sees an advantage in removing this institutional constraint and retaining the presidency, perhaps because the relative importance of foreign policy – a key focus of the post – is growing amid China’s pursuit of great power status.

Downside risks outweigh potential positives

Foreign investors can take some small comfort from the fact that the centralisation of power in Xi’s hands is making it easier to understand the policy environment. If a proposal is endorsed by the ‘Chairman of Everything’ then it is odds-on to become government policy, even if its implementation is still far from guaranteed. But the political downsides are manifold.

There is a distinct danger that scrapping presidential term limits may lead to policy missteps, as the apex of the party-state risks becomes a sycophantic echo chamber where bad news is buried. Leaders for life are not like wine, they rarely get better with age – Chairman Mao most certainly did not – suggesting that governance in China may well decline over the next decade and a half. The unravelling of the previous system governed by norms also creates a succession issue down the line that - as one domestic commentator put it - may ‘sow the seeds of future chaos’.

By Hugo Brennan, Asia Analyst

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