Xi's Road to Indefinite Rule Through Rule-Making

The Chinese leader follows a global pattern of power-grabs by procedure, not by coup.

A Souvenir necklace with a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping
Thomas Peter / Reuters

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.

Thomas Carothers, who directs the democracy and rule-of-law program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me that the use of such tactics doesn’t always go smoothly. He noted, for instance, that China’s announcement came on Sunday. The country then stifled online dissent about it. “If they proud of doing this, and it was an easy thing to do, or if there was a good rationale for it, why not do it in the full light of the day?” Carothers asked.

Jerome Cohen, a professor at NYU who is an expert in Chinese law, wrote Sunday that the proposed rule change means the Communist Party “has forgotten one of the main lessons of Mao’s long despotism.” The term limit, Cohen wrote, “reflected a widespread desire to prevent the return of one-man dictatorship.” But Xi is now tightening his hold at the peak of his powers and on the eve of his second term. And he’s doing it in a way that seems to respect rather than break the rules, with the Communist Party giving the move an official imprimatur—one that might be more palatable for the larger Chinese public, who already are said to broadly support Xi’s governing style (though, given China’ limits on freedom of expression, it is impossible to measure the true level of dissent).

Carothers said the trend Xi represents is a reversal from the 1990s, when many leaders were taking steps to become more democratic. “They went through a liberalizing phase, a rule-oriented phase, but now ... in the past 10 years, they’re pushing back against their own self-imposed limitation,” he said in an interview. “It’s a re-hardening against constitutional limitations, elections, and things like that were accepted in the 1990s.”

Take Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had served three terms as prime minister, moved into what was then the ceremonial role of the presidency in 2014. But from that perch he has wielded power not typically associated with the role, and last April set about to formalize it. Erdogan, who is widely popular and who until relatively recently was lauded as a champion of democracy and the rule of law in Turkey, organized a nationwide referendum to move Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. That would give the winner of next year’s presidential election, widely expected to be Erdogan himself, the position of head of state, with few checks on his power. Last April’s vote passed narrowly, but the victory all but ensured that Erdogan, 64, will tighten his hold on power for the foreseeable future.

Similarly in Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro has achieved a power grab impressive even by the standards of Latin American strongmen of the past—despite having accelerated the dismantling of what was once one of Latin America’s wealthiest and most stable countries. With the legislature dominated by his opposition, he opted to essentially create a new one—calling for elections last July to create a new constituent assembly that would, among other things, have the power to rewrite the constitution. Turnout was poor, but Maduro claimed victory in a vote that was widely seen as flawed.

In Putin’s case, the issue isn’t quite what the Russian leader has done to stay in power, but what he might do following next month’s election. He is virtually certain to be re-elected to another six-year term. Putin was president from 2000 to 2008 before stepping down because of term limits that forbid more than two consecutive terms in office. To get around that, he traded jobs with his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, before returning to the presidency in 2012. Putin is now 65, and by the time his next term ends, he will be in his 70s. And what then? He could, in theory, do what he previously did with Medvedev, a practice the Russians describe as “castling,” for the chess move, or he could rework the constitution so he doesn’t have to bother. He has said he won’t do the latter, but who would hold him accountable?

Carothers pointed out that while to the outside world, and indeed many Russians, Putin might seem like a strong leader, such moves are a sign not of strength, but also insecurity—of Putin’s concern about what would happen to him if he’s no longer in power.

“Once you personalize the system to such a degree that he has … you have very few protections” against allegations of corruption and other malfeasance, Carothers said. “It’s a reflection of the personalization of rule and the concentration of rule in a person so that there’s the feeling that if you’re not that person anymore, the system will not protect you.”

All these leaders have used a combination of populist politics and muscular nationalism to force through political changes that consolidate their personal positions—some are even popular. In times of growth and prosperity, as China is seeing now, the changes could be welcomed.

Carothers said the constitutional limits on authoritarian leaders “were fairly weak checks on their power.”  “What we’re seeing now is greater self-confidence on the part of many authoritarian leaders,” he said. “There’s a feeling that ‘we can do this. We want to stay in power. We don’t give up power. And we have the win of history at our backs.’”

But because every economic upturn is followed by a downturn, any long-term failures will also be tied to them, as they remake their countries in their image. “Xi Jinping is susceptible to making big mistakes because there are now almost no checks or balances,” Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told The New York Times. “Essentially, he has become emperor for life.”

But even emperors have to face unpleasant realities. As Cohen, the NYU professor put it: Xi’s move will “enable him to move more boldly and increases the risk of his acting arbitrarily and perhaps mistakenly in international relations.”

“There is big risk for Xi at home since, as it becomes more obvious that China’s problems are catching up with its achievements, the government will look less impressive and the masses will begin to lose their enthusiasm and hold the great leader responsible,” he wrote. “The elite will be less surprised but less forgiving.”