China: Back to the Future

Jon Berkeley/The Economist
Xi Jinping

In 2023, Xi Jinping will conclude his second term as China’s president. Ever since Deng Xiaoping revised the country’s constitution more than thirty-five years ago, two consecutive terms have been the most that a president can legally serve. But it has become increasingly clear that Xi has no plans to retire. In March, the National People’s Congress—a rubber-stamp body with no real legislative power—approved a constitutional amendment that abolished term limits for the presidency, effectively clearing the way for Xi to hold the position indefinitely.

It was a step that caused despair among Chinese liberals and alarm among commentators outside China. The Washington Post published two pieces on consecutive days speculating that Xi was setting himself up to be China’s first “leader for life” since Mao Zedong died in 1976. Xi has emerged as Mao’s revenge on Deng. Deng did what Mao feared his successors would do—bring an end to permanent revolution—and Xi is doing what Deng feared his successors might do: restoring one-man rule.

But the abolition of presidential term limits is actually one of the less consequential steps in Xi’s centralization of power. The presidency (or state chairmanship, in Chinese) has been a ceremonial position, superior in rank but inferior in authority to the position of premier (currently held by Li Keqiang). Articles 80 and 81 of the 1982 PRC constitution provide that the president “promulgates statutes, appoints or removes the Premier,… confers State medals and titles of honor,… receives foreign diplomatic representatives…and ratifies or abrogates treaties and important agreements concluded with foreign states.” Mao, who was party chairman—as the top party post was called at that time—until the day he died, held the presidency for only a short time after the first PRC constitution was promulgated in 1954. He soon yielded the position to a less influential official, Liu Shaoqi, purged Liu in the Cultural Revolution, let the presidency lapse, and finally had it eliminated in a new constitution in 1975.

In 1982, Deng reintroduced it in the PRC’s fourth constitution. To help keep power struggles like those of the Mao years from recurring, he imposed a two-term limit on both the president and the vice-president. As a rising power, Deng realized, China needed a head of state who could meet as a counterpart with other heads of state. This remains the most important function of the post today. Even so, secondary figures in the leadership fulfilled it until Jiang Zemin, the party leader after Tiananmen, restored Mao’s early practice of uniting the top party, military, and state offices in one person. That practice was followed by Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, and now by Xi, who is at once party secretary, military commission chair, and state president.

The abolition of term limits was therefore more important symbolically than practically. It was Xi’s first explicit repudiation of the orderly system…

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