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#ESSADebate: President Xi and the Abolition of Term Limits


Bilal Ibrahim & Sherry Te

By

July 30th, 2018


In March, China abolished presidential term limits from its constitution, allowing the current President Xi to rule the country indefinitely. Term limits had been established in 1981 during the leadership of Den Xiaoping during a liberal era of the country’s history and were intended to move the country away from the shadow of the totalitarian rule of Mao Zedong. Now, the erasure of term limits has been widely condemned with many speculating that it is a step back towards a more totalitarian China.


Negative

Sherry Te

China, as a superpower country, is always trying to advance politically and economically, even if it means radicalizing its government once again. Last March, 3,000 delegates of the National People’s Congress of China voted to abolish the two-term presidential limit.

The big question: Is China repeating history?

In 1982, during the recovery period from the Cultural Revolution, a new constitution was established, stating that both the president and vice president “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms.” China recognized the hazards of centralizing power in a sole leader who ruled for unlimited amounts of time. Lawmakers acknowledged that lifelong incumbency is a sure way to impose tyranny, particularly in a one-party nation. So, is the recent constitutional amendment paving the way for another dictator?

The constitutional amendment will allow President Xi to have absolute power. He will be allowed to reign for as long as it takes to implement his two-stage grand vision; this is projected to take at least 23 years to make China “a great modern socialist nation” by the mid-21st century. Many Chinese millennials think that this move may be a sign that history is repeating itself or that they are following in the path of North Korea.

It is likely, that President Xi will continue to reform the state’s governance of the economy, running it as a pseudo-free market, while allowing more independent leadership from the nation’s military to extend Chinese power. However, these efficiency-oriented strategies come with long-term costs to China’s political stability.

China is currently at a crossroads with its economy. During this transitional phase it is best not to experience instability, therefore, self-interested intentions must be eliminated. China’s political history is rife with stories of selfish individuals seeking personal gain over the collective advance, again and again, this has led to turmoil.

It has been very rare that lifelong leaders transfer their power smoothly. Hence, if President Xi rules for an indeterminate amount of time, tensions concerning succession will intensify inside and outside the Party. Without term limits, the cyclical politics of succession will continue indefinitely until President Xi steps down or dies. Lifelong reigns increase the pressure of succession, which enlarges the need for political capital by the successor. Since modern succession does not necessarily follow familial continuity, often dictators are not willing to transfer immense power. This imposes extensive threats to society and will continue the dangerous politics of succession cycle among elites in China. Usually, the tension ends with the leader’s demise and severe conflict which has enduring effects on government institutions.

Despite the pitfalls, succession tension can result in cooperative leadership. For example, this was achieved by the Deng administration – the same administration which instated formal and informal term limits. President Xi may do the same at the end of his reign and reinstate term limits during the transitions to his successor. The reinstatement of term limits is dependent on the future political climate in China and President Xi’s influence. However, it seems unlikely, or at least hypocritical, that leader who has advocated for unfixed terms would advocate the opposite for his successor.

Therefore, the path for China’s future remains unsure as they enter a new era. Whether history will repeat itself or Xi will be able to usher in a period of prosperity, strength and harmony, with his Two Stage Grand Vision remains undetermined.

 

Affirmative

Bilal Ibrahim

The recent decision by President Xi to abolish Presidential term limits has had some comparing his rise to that of Mao Zedong and a harbinger of political instability and violence. However, this reform by President Xi is, yet another adaptation designed to ensure stability within the party.

There are three key leadership positions in China; the President, the Party Leader and the Military Chairman. All these posts are usually occupied by the same person. While the President had term limits, neither the Military chairman nor the Party Leader position had any term limits. Originally, this was because the role of the President was ceremonial. However, as China became more of a global power, the President took on a primary role in Chinese foreign relations. The purpose of eliminating Presidential term limits to make the three positions more consistent. Therefore, it is inappropriate to compare the rise of Xi to Mao or any other communist dictator. Mao was operating for personal gain and used the fear of violence to consolidate power. Mao used a weak communist party to promote his own agenda and did not care about maintaining stability or the prosperity of his people. President Xi, the son of party elder who was purged by Mao, has had a track record of effective policies and is far too practical to follow in the footsteps of Mao.

China has come a long way since the tumultuous years of Mao which were rife with political instability and violence. The country is ruled by one party that has delivered tangible results to its people. In little over three decades, China has pulled 800 million people out of poverty, raised the life expectancy of its citizens to seventy-six years, and has vastly improved its ties with foreign nations. It is unlikely that the either President Xi or the party will risk allowing a regression back into the dark era of China’s history.

President Xi has played a pivotal role in realising the vision of a strong China. Since his appointment to office, President Xi has carried out a series of policies that have cemented China’s position as a dominant global power.  For instance, he is currently orchestrating China’s move from its structural growth model, of capital-intensive means of production, to higher-order, specialised production. President Xi implemented a series of policies in 2013 labelled the Belt Road Initiative that seeks to export China’s expertise in infrastructure to developing countries. His recent policy, Made in China 2025, has focused on ensuring China’s leadership in key technologies of the future. Under President Xi’s leadership, China has become a leader in renewable energy development. It was announced that China will spend $70 trillion dollars up until 2040 to transition to renewable energy and electric vehicles, making China one of the biggest investors in renewables.

President Xi is a ruler who has served his people well. He is determined to ensure prosperity for China, but his policies will take more than five years to be implemented. Term limits foster short-term appeasement rather than long-term planning and this removes the obstacle.

China’s experiment in an authoritative collective leadership has proven to be wildly successful in governing its people and has been a key factor in contributing to an environment of stability. President Xi’s rule will ensure that China has the stability to address future challenges.

 

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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