China’s Communist Party instituted term limits after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, to ensure that a future Chinese leader wouldn’t rule for life and cement the kind of cult of personality Mao had. Those term limits—up to two consecutive five-year terms—have endured through the reigns of Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. But now, in the reign of Xi Jinping, they may be on their way out.
The party proposed Sunday a change to the constitution that would abolish term limits, essentially giving Xi the authority to rule for life. Xi, who completes his first term in office next month, emerged as China’s most powerful leader since Deng, who ushered China’s economic reforms, at the Communist Party Congress last October. The party enshrined his “thought” into its constitution, an honor previously accorded only Mao; and it did not, as is custom, reveal a successor to Xi, who under rules in effect at the time of the congress would have to step down in 2022. Xi was widely seen to have consolidated his power at the end of the congress—just how much became apparent Sunday.
If China does indeed remove term limits for Xi, he will not be the first world leader to use constitutional rules for authoritarian purposes. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and Russian President Vladimir Putin have all made similar moves. It’s a form of power grab by procedure rather than by coup. In Africa alone, 17 leaders have tried to change the constitution since 2000 in order to prolong their rule—most recently Ugandan President Yoweri Musaveni, 73, who enacted a law ending a presidential age limit of 75.