BY LAWRENCE J. LAU, PHD | OUTSIDE PUBLICATION
Lawrence J. Lau says the removal of the term limits on the office of China’s president would seem to signal Xi Jinping’s resolve to continue his anti-corruption campaign and economic reform agenda, while pre-empting any challenge to his power.
The news that China’s constitution may be amended by the National People’s Congress to remove term limits for the president and vice-president has aroused significant reactions around the world. The existing constitution limits the president, vice-president and members of the NPC to two consecutive five-year terms. There are fears that China would become more authoritarian and dictatorial with such an amendment, and that a president might serve for life.
However, it is important to observe that the president, as the titular head of state, actually has no real power under the Chinese constitution. The real executive power and authority are vested in the Communist Party and exercised through its general secretary. In the past several decades, the general secretary has frequently served concurrently as the president, but not always. For example, while Jiang Zemin served as general secretary from 1989 to 2002, Yang Shangkun served as president from 1988 to 1993, and was then succeeded by Jiang.
What matters most is the general secretary. In the Communist Party charter, there is no specified term limit for the general secretary, even though there has been an informal customary and unwritten rule since the 16th National People’s Congress in 2002, that no one older than 68 will be appointed or reappointed to membership of the Politburo Standing Committee, which includes the general secretary. Xi Jinping, aged 64, only began his second term as general secretary in late 2017. For him to retain authority and power beyond the end of his current term, he needs to be re-elected to a new term at the 20th National People’s Congress, expected to be held in late 2022, when he will be 69, just over the unwritten limit of 68.
The unwritten rule can be changed at the time if necessary. But it is neither necessary nor sufficient to remove the presidential term limit from the Chinese constitution for Xi to continue to lead the party because the general secretary and the president are two separate positions.
In fact, Xi’s second term as president has yet to begin. The absence of an explicit term limit does not necessarily imply that the current two-term limit will be exceeded. For example, there was no presidential term limit in the United States in the 162 years between 1789 and 1951, during which 33 different presidents served, but only one president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, served more than two terms, because the US was in the midst of the second world war. In fact, quite a few presidents did not serve more than one term. In any case, the voters were free to decide whether enough was enough in the absence of a term limit.
There have also been many attempts to repeal term limits around the world. In the US, there have been attempts to repeal the 22nd Amendment – dealing with term limits to the constitution – in 1985, for example, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. There is nothing intrinsically wrong or undemocratic about having no presidential term limitin a constitution.
Since the presidency in China has no real authority or power, why is the amendment being proposed now? One can only speculate. First, it is apparent that the anti-corruption campaign at the most senior levels of the Community Party, the government and the armed forces has yet to be completed, judging from the recent press revelations of new investigations and prosecutions. The removal of the term limit may therefore serve as a useful signal of the resolve of the current administration to see the campaign through to the very end, and that any actual or potential opposition should take heed.
In addition, as there is currently no clearly designated successor to the position of general secretary, as opposed to the cases of the previous two administrations, the removal of the term limit may also be intended to discourage premature jockeying and lobbying on the part of potential aspirants to the position. It also shows that Xi has no intention of becoming a lame duck any time soon.
It is true that this and other concurrently proposed amendments to the constitution have the effect of strengthening Xi’s authority and power. However, the concentration of power is probably necessary to take on the strong and entrenched vested interests, both inside and outside the party and government. Over the years, systemic corruption has reached the highest echelons of the party, the government and the armed forces. Without a powerful centre, it is impossible for the anti-corruption campaign to succeed in a sustained manner.
Moreover, the vested interests have become an impediment to further economic reform. Among those that may be opposed to further opening of the Chinese economy are the monopolistic state-owned and privately-owned enterprises. Among those that may be opposed to the reduction of excess production capacities and letting the market play the decisive role are local governments, the collaborating private entrepreneurs, and the banks that finance the excess capacities. The provision of public goods that are in high demand, such as environmental preservation and renewal, health care, elderly care and the alleviation of poverty, requires strong governmental leadership. Centralised authority and power are absolutely essential for overcoming the opposition of local governments and the private moneyed interests, and pushing forward the economic reform agenda in China.
Many in the West have been disappointed by the degree of progress made in economic reform during the past five years. However, successful implementation of economic reform is dependent on the use of state power. For example, only a powerful central financial regulator can take on all the well-connected financial “cowboys” now operating in China, to reduce the risks of a financial crisis. This suggests that increased centralisation can enhance economic stability, reduce risk and uncertainty, and improve economic efficiency in the current Chinese environment.
Professor Lawrence J. Lau is the Ralph and Claire Landau Professor of Economics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Why now? It also appeared in the South China Morning Post online edition as: Why now? The rationale behind Xi Jinping's power consolidation. The article is republished here with the permission of Professor Lau and the SCMP.