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On Chinese politics in the Department of Political Science

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On China and authoritarianism

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China’s recent move to abolish presidential term limits

Idea

“In the short run, it is clear that Xi Jinping is the sort of unquestioned center of power in the Chinese system.”

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The Politic: China’s Communist Party recently abolished term limits on the presidency, which will allow President Xi Jinping to rule for life. This decision shocked the world, and Chinese liberals consider it to be a step backward for the country. What factors do you think prompted this change, and has the Chinese government been moving in a more conservative direction over the last few years?

Daniel Mattingly: Yes, the Chinese government has been moving in a more conservative direction over the last few years. Xi Jinping, who’s the president of China and also the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, has been consolidating power in China since he took office in 2013.

This is part of a larger consolidation of power by Xi Jinping. I think the thing that has surprised people is first of all, there are term limits, which have existed since Deng Xiaoping put them in place in the 1980s. Deng did so after seeing the turmoil of the Mao years and the turmoil that the succession process for Chairman Mao created. Chairman Mao designated a bunch of successors over his time in office, and ultimately, when he died, Hua Guofeng took over. Deng and a lot of the other top leadership saw the chaos and decided that they wanted to institute these term limits, which regularize succession for the Communist Party. The fact that Xi Jinping has been able to undo what was one of Deng’s greatest achievements is a pretty big deal and a big signal of his strength.

I think it means that in the short run, it is clear that Xi Jinping is the sort of unquestioned center of power in the Chinese system. He has had his Xi Jinping Thought written into the Constitution, he’s eliminated term limits, and he has completely consolidated power. In the long run though, what it means is that China is going to have a messy succession battle whenever Xi Jinping gives up power, either voluntarily or passes away. That’s the big problem for autocratic regimes. For a lot of them, their Achilles’ heel is the succession process.

The party argues that the abolishment of term limits is good because it will promote long-term political and economic stability in China: Xi Jinping will have more time to complete his projects or goals. Do you think that this statement is true?

I think that this statement is partially true. I think that in the short run, it’s good for the party to have stability. The fact that Xi Jinping will stay in office and the fact that right now, he has a lot of clout is beneficial. If people knew that in five years he was going to leave office, it could potentially make him a lame duck. There are some people in the party who thought that was part of the problem with Hu Jintao, the previous president. People thought that Hu Jintao was a lame duck, in addition to being what people now widely think of as a weak leader.

The fact that Xi Jinping now has the opportunity to stay in office means that he now has the power to push through reforms. As part of the party congress that just concluded, he pushed through a bunch of reforms to the Chinese state, some pretty wide-reaching reorganization and reshuffling of the administrative system. Stuff like that, at least from the vantage point of the party, is a good thing.

In the long run though, it’s probably a disaster for the party. I think it’s a really problematic move. Now, it’s not clear how they’re going to resolve the succession problem going forward. The fact that Xi Jinping has undone the system means that no one knows who’s going to succeed him or when. He could designate his successor, much like Mao did. However, in the long run, it is almost certain to create turmoil. As I mentioned before, succession is the Achilles’ heel for a lot of these autocratic regimes.

Being an autocrat is a dangerous business. If you look at the post ten year fates of leaders of democracies, most people end up okay. Ninety percent of people are doing things like Obama, Bush, or Clinton: giving speeches and making a lot of money. They’re fine. They’re healthy. If you look at the post ten year fates of autocrats, for the ones who don’t die in office, about half are jailed, killed, or exiled. Many autocrats are usurped by others. It’s a violent business being an autocrat, and it will only worsen because of this unclear succession process. The fact that China solved this problem for at least a couple cycles was a big deal. Now, China is back in the world of every other autocracy where things are unstable whenever you have a leadership transition. So, in the long run, it’s terrible for the party.

This abolishment of term limits was also very surprising to some people because Xi Jinping still has his second term as president. Why do you think he decided to make this move during his first term as president, rather than waiting?

A lot of people thought that (a) Xi Jinping might wait until the end of his second term to do this, and (b) most people, and I put myself in this camp, incorrectly thought that he would not change the rules and retire as president but still rule behind the scenes. He might have given up his job as president and given up his post as the leader of the Communist Party, which is the most important post, and he could have also given up his post as the head of the military. He could have potentially relinquished all of those posts but ruled behind the scenes like Deng Xiaoping did. A lot of people thought that Xi Jinping might do the same thing.

He has obviously chosen the third path, which is neither of those choices. That was a big surprise. I think that it told us a couple of things. First, it told us that the office of president is maybe more important than we thought. People have generally thought that the Chairman of the Communist Party is the more important job. The fact that Xi Jinping clearly wants to hold onto the presidency shows that the presidency is important symbolically or as a way for rivals to coordinate. If someone else came in as president, that person could emerge as a rival to Xi. It could also indicate a respect for the China-style rule of law. It was surprising that he did it, and I think people are still trying to think through the implications of why.

Like you mentioned in a previous question, the term limit was originally implemented in order to prevent China from developing a cult of personality and over-concentration of power like it did when Mao Zedong ruled. Do you think Xi Jinping will ever reach the same level of power or public adoration as Mao did?

As a prediction, no, because the kind of state that Mao ruled over was very different. It was a very totalitarian and communist state that attempted to control all facets of public and private life. Despite all of the potentially worrisome things you read about, like the increase of surveillance in China, China is not really headed in that direction. The idea that Xi would be able accumulate that level of power, I don’t think that’s in the cards. The idea that Xi is really powerful and at this point, clearly more powerful than any of the post-Mao leaders, is probably enough. China is not going to go back to that era of Mao and the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, for good reason. Xi is not going to be that kind of leader, but he’s building his own kind of state, which I think is different from the Maoist state. It includes some elements of the Maoist state, such as a healthy amount of pro-Xi Jinping propaganda. You can say that it is moving in a more sort of personalist direction; it’s less and less about the institutions and more and more about the person of Xi Jinping. However, to answer your question, I don’t think that it will happen.

What impact do you think the abolition of term limits will have on China’s relationship with other countries? For example, do you think that there will be more economic conflict?

My view is that it won’t really change China’s relationship with other countries. At least for now, it will make China more predictable. We know that Xi Jinping is going to be in power. We know what sort of leader he is. We know what sort of policies he’s interested in pursuing, both within China and within the international sphere. I think the thing to watch is what happens during the next leadership transition, however that plays out.

I don’t mean the leadership transition that happens five years from now or at the next party congress or at the next National People’s Congress. I mean whatever leadership transition happens when Xi Jinping meaningfully gives up power. As I said, there is a real possibility for instability at that point, so I think that could end up changing China’s relationship with the rest of the world. Whoever ends up taking the reins after Xi might have a large impact. For now, however, I don’t think this decision changes things that much. It certainly changes things a lot internally, within China, but I don’t think it will change China’s relationship with other countries.