Tyrone Siu / Reuters

Xi Jinping is poised to become the first Chinese president in decades to stay in power for more than ten years. Yesterday, the Chinese Communist Party announced its intention to abolish presidential term limits, a decision that will, in effect, allow Xi to remain president for as long as he’d like. We asked Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows, a longtime China hand, to weigh in.

Xi Jinping Makes an Autocrat’s Move

By James Fallows, Atlantic national correspondent

No outsider can know for sure what the latest constitutional change in China will mean. Probably no one inside China can be sure, either. But it can’t mean anything good.

The world already has one Vladimir Putin, running a country whose pride, resentments, and ambitions are large but whose economy is struggling and peripheral to the rest of the world’s. The news from China may mean, in effect, the introduction of another Putin—but one running a country whose economy is equivalent to six of Russia’s, and is intimately connected everywhere.

First, to be precise about what has just happened: The role of “leader” in China has, in recent years, been a combination of three component positions. One is the official title of president of the People’s Republic of China. This amounts to being “head of state,” which sounds august but in practical powers is very limited. Another is general secretary of the Communist Party. This you could roughly analogize to “head of party,” which in turn would mean “head of government” in a parliamentary system. It is the real power base. The third, also very important, is chairman of the State Military Commission—in essence, “commander in chief.”

Of the three roles, only the presidency has had term limits—which since roughly the time of Deng Xiaoping have been two five-year terms, or a total of ten years. That two-term limit is what China is now proposing to remove. (De facto, the limit on presidential tenure has been the accepted sign that leaders would have to transfer their power.) In practice this could mean that Xi Jinping, who became president five years ago, could rule not just for an additional five years but … indefinitely.

Why does this matter? Again, any prediction about China is provisional, and I try my best not to make them at all. But at face value, it’s a significant step back for the long-term process of regularizing Chinese government practices, and it seems to resolve, in a negative way, one of the greatest debates about Xi Jinping’s ambitions and intents.

The step backward is obvious enough not to need belaboring. After its decades of rule under Mao Zedong — whose record was “70 percent positive, 30 percent negative” in the formulaic response by most people in China, the 30 percent covering the famines of the 1950s and the terror and chaos of the 1960s — China had announced at least the ambition of moving toward a system of rule-by-law, rather than rule by a sequence of strong men. Scoff as you might at the very concept of procedural rules, judicial independence, or individual rights in a one-party state, serious people in China have devoted their lives to bringing those abstractions into closer reach. (In Shanghai I recently interviewed a talented young woman who was studying human rights law in Europe, so that she could work in that field when she returned to China.) And from the early 1990s until a few years ago, it appeared as if China was moving in that direction—slowly, unevenly, but in a liberalizing-and-regularizing direction rather than the reverse.

Removing the limits on Xi Jinping’s time in power is a giant step backward, and shows what can happen when rule-by-law runs counter to the wishes of one strong man.

The debate that this news resolves, or at least clarifies, is what Xi Jinping has wanted to use his power for. From the start, it was clear that he would be a different Chinese leader from his predecessor, the colorless engineer Hu Jintao. Partly that was because of Xi’s background as part of the “revolutionary aristocracy,” specifically as son of a famous member of Mao’s revolutionary Red Army. (Xi Jinping’s father had fought with Mao against first the Japanese and then Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists. He had been a prominent figure in the early Communist government, had fallen out of favor and been purged during the Cultural Revolution of the mid 1960s, and then had returned to power under Deng Xiaoping in the mid 1970s.) And partly it was due to Xi Jinping’s own big, dominant personality.

An anecdotal illustration of the shift from Hu to Xi: Hu Jintao’s wife, Liu Yongqing, was virtually invisible in press or public appearances during his time in office. But Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan, is a singer and actress who, until he took power, was a much bigger celebrity in China than her husband. A Kremlinology-style (“with Chinese characteristics”) illustration of the difference: At just the same time Xi Jinping was sworn in as president of China, he also took command as chairman of the military commission. (He had already become party secretary.) For Hu Jintao, it took a full two years after he became president and general secretary for him also to take command of the military. (His predecessor, Jiang Zemin, held onto it until then.)

So everyone was prepared for a newly confident, assertive leader. No one could be sure how he would use the power he possessed. Evan Osnos’s 2015 New Yorker article, “Born Red”—which appeared two years into Xi’s first term and reflected the doubt among well-informed observers about where things were heading—was a very good survey of the conflicting guesses and theories about Xi. The most notoriously over-optimistic reading of the possibilities was that of Nicholas Kristof, who at the start of Xi’s term wrote in the New York Times that China was about to see its golden age of reform. (The piece began, “Here is my prediction about China: The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning writer, will be released from prison.” Of course Liu Xiaobo died in prison; Mao’s waxen-looking corpse is still in Tiananmen Square; and China is notably more repressive than it was when Xi arrived.) My own reading of the Xi tea leaves, “China’s Great Leap Backward,” appeared in late 2016 in The Atlantic.  

The doubt, or mystery, about Xi’s role is whether he was concentrating power, eliminating rivals, and punishing critics because that was the only way to do the hard anti-corruption and clean-up work that China so desperately needed—or whether he was doing it for its own sake. Was this a crack-down as prelude to reform, or just a crack-down?

We seem to have an answer. Again, every conclusion about China is subject to review. But for now this is an autocrat’s move, not a reformer’s. It’s a change that will make things harder for the millions in China who have been expecting a steadily more open and rule-based society, and for those around the world who will be affected by whatever Xi does next.

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