Xi Jinping’s Great Leap Backward

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s move to eliminate the two-term limit for the presidency and vice-presidency of the Chinese state reflects his belief, and the belief of cadres and officials, that the much-praised system of Chinese communist governance had failed. As Thomas Friedman of The New York Times wrote in May, “Xi’s allies argue that his crackdown on corruption; his repeal of term limits, which positions him to rule for what could be decades; and his tightening of the control that the Communist Party wields over every institution was urgent because collective rule did not work.”

The notion that collective rule was failing is at odds with the widespread view that China’s brand of authoritarianism was actually succeeding, a view shared even by prominent regime critics such as Columbia University’s Andrew J. Nathan. Nathan, in an influential article in the Journal of Democracy titled “Authoritarian Resilience,” argued in 2003 that the Communist Party had managed, despite everything, to find a winning formula of governance. Authoritarianism, he suggested, may be “a viable regime form even under conditions of advanced modernization and integration with the global economy.”

But Xi’s actions suggest otherwise. In March, China’s National People’s Congress, acting on the recommendation of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, amended the country’s constitution to eliminate that two-term limit for the Chinese presidency. The amendment was adopted as Xi Jinping was nearing the end of his first five-year presidential term. Now, the 65-year-old Xi can serve as president indefinitely beyond 2023.

The Chinese presidency, largely a ceremonial position, is the least important of Xi’s three posts. Nonetheless, by forcing the amendment through the party, in the face of strong opposition, and then getting the rubberstamp national legislature to formally approve it, Xi made clear his intent to remove limits to his exercise of power.

Xi Jinping’s Great Leap Backward

His two other posts, general secretary of the party and chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, are not term-limited. Thus removing the restrictions on the presidency makes it more likely he will try to hold onto the party positions as well. Party leaders, especially since the awkward transition from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao when Jiang retained the chairmanship of the Military Commission, generally have wanted only one person to hold all three positions in what is now called the “trinity leadership pattern.”

To understand these dynamics, it is helpful to survey the history of Chinese governance following the death in 1976 of Mao Zedong, an early member of the Communist Party and first leader of the People’s Republic. Mao’s successors institutionalized themselves by smoothing out successions, promoting meritocratic politics, modernizing a large bureaucracy, and establishing the means of political participation to strengthen legitimacy.

All this led Nathan to conclude the Chinese system would work, notwithstanding its many challenges. “Regime theory holds that authoritarian systems are inherently fragile because of weak legitimacy, overreliance on coercion, overcentralizaton of decision making, and the predominance of personal power over institutional norms,” Nathan wrote. “This particular authoritarian system, however, has proven resilient.”  

Nathan called that system, naturally, “resilient authoritarianism.” He was contrasting China’s modern-day communism with that of Mao, who worshiped chaos, thriving on it as he imprisoned, killed, and tortured rivals off the stage in Beijing. In Mao’s China, there were, as a practical matter, no rules. His death touched off two years of turmoil, centered on the infamous Gang of Four, which included Mao’s widow. There were, not surprisingly, more jailings and deaths until the party settled on a new leader.

That new leader was Deng Xiaoping, who quickly shoved Hua Guofeng, Mao’s designated successor, aside. Deng then restored normalcy, beginning the long process of institutionalizing Chinese Communist politics. During the Deng era—he died in early 1997—the party developed understandings, norms, and rules that guided the competition among the organization’s various and ever-changing factions, groupings, and coalitions.

Among Deng’s rules was the term limit for the state presidency, adopted in 1982. More important, the party developed various unwritten understandings that guided state and party officials. There were, for instance, vague notions among the biggest factions about sharing power and maintaining a balance of sorts.

During the Deng era, the party also developed norms that later hardened into guidelines or even rules. The most important was the understanding that Chinese leaders were limited to two five-year terms as general secretary. Moreover, successors to a leader, according to these rules, were designated at the beginning of that leader’s second five-year term as general secretary.

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At the 19th Communist Party National Congress held last October, however, Xi broke convention by preventing the designation of a successor. No one who might follow him was named to the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of Chinese power. Also, ahead of the 19th Congress Xi targeted an up-and-coming figure, Sun Zhengcai from Chongqing, by having him investigated for “serious discipline violations,” party code for corruption. Sun has been given a life sentence in circumstances indicating his crime was political—in other words, being in a faction not controlled by Xi Jinping.

The effect of the moves is to reverse what many previously hailed as progress. “The amendment sends a terrible signal about institutional rule,” said a former Chinese government official to the Financial Times, referring to Xi’s abolition of the presidential term limit.

In reality, however, proponents of institutional rule, both Chinese and foreign, had exaggerated progress. Only one general secretary, Hu Jintao, actually served just two five-year terms. Moreover, the peaceful transitions from Deng to Jiang Zemin and from Jiang to Hu were not real tests of Communist Party institutionalization. Deng not only picked his successor, Jiang; he also chose Jiang’s successor, Hu. In other words, the transition from Hu to Xi was the first in the history of the People’s Republic not determined by Deng. Thus, this was the first real test of institutionalization, and although that transition went smoothly it produced the figure who swiftly reversed the progress that had been achieved. Xi Jinping is deinstitutionalizing the Communist Party, abolishing norms, understandings, guidelines—and the rule establishing the presidential term limit.

Xi, seeking to reassure Chinese and foreigners during the uproar over the term limit abolition, said he was “personally opposed” to lifetime rule. But many observers reacted skeptically, suggesting Xi wants to stay on indefinitely, perhaps till he dies. Whatever Xi’s intentions or personal feelings at this time, though, he has in fact opened the door to dictator-for-life status.

Authoritarian systems, Beijing reminds us, have many advantages over democratic ones, but they have one critical failing: the possibility of great turmoil surrounding the transfer of power from one leader to the next. Most observers had assumed the Communist Party had remedied that weakness with its new institutional mechanisms, but Xi has now proven them wrong with just a few dramatic strokes.

“It is now unclear not only when Xi Jinping will depart, but how,” Mary Gallagher of the University of Michigan told The American Conservative in April. “Term limits were simply the mechanism by which the Communist Party of China successfully completed leadership transition, which is normally very difficult for regimes without elections. People in Germany may not know exactly when Angela Merkel will no longer serve as chancellor, but they are very clear about how she will leave—her party will fail to achieve the amount of votes needed to win or they will fail to form a coalition, as just nearly happened.”

Now that Xi has junked the rules-based political order, the next leadership transition in China, whenever it occurs, is bound to be especially tumultuous, just like the struggles of the Maoist era and the one at its end. In short, there is little to restrain the machinations of especially ambitious figures, which means the China of the future might be repeating the dangerous patterns established decades ago.

The future of political controversies in China, therefore, could resemble the past. During Mao’s time losers in political contests sometimes lost their lives. Deng Xiaoping’s contribution to Chinese politics was to lower the cost of failing and thereby reduce the incentive to tear the party apart. Losers during Deng’s era retired to nice homes. Hua Guofeng, for example, lived comfortably until 2008.

But Xi is upping the consequences for those coming out on the short end of political struggles. In what he has styled a new “anti-corruption” campaign but which looks more like an old-fashioned political purge, Xi has jailed more than 1.3 million officials. He has removed the venal, but it’s noteworthy that almost none of them were his supporters. They were, for the most part, either political opponents or potential rivals, like Sun from Chongqing. Moreover, Xi has betrayed the real nature of the campaign by jailing anti-corruption campaigners and leaving alone his own family members, some of whom, under the most suspicious of circumstances, have become extraordinarily wealthy since he was identified as Hu’s successor.

China, in short, is returning to winner-takes-all politics. The ultimate logic of this development is consolidation of power. Xi’s defenders now say only one-man rule—one man with “absolute” control over the party and the party havin