University of California, Los Angeles

A New World Order? How China’s Abolishment of Presidential Term Limits Might Become the Norm for Global Democracy

In a mostly ceremonial parliamentary vote on Sunday March 11, the National People’s Congress of China voted to allow the abolishment of term limits for President Xi Jinping, allowing him to stay in power indefinitely. While China is not nominally a democratic state, its example should be a warning for democracies around the world. After all, President Donald Trump lauded President Xi’s move by suggesting,“maybe we’ll give that a shot.” China’s action also recalls Vladmir Putin’s consolidation of unlimited power in his earlier stages as leader of Russia, while also effectively retaining the country’s appearance as a democracy.

Experts speculate that President Xi’s decision is justified by his two other posts: as head of the Communist party and of the military, positions which both do not have term limits. Out of the 2,964 ballots counted in Beijing’s Great Hall of People, only two delegates voted against and three abstained, underscoring the minimal opposition to President Xi and the party. President Xi, who before this decision was already being compared to Mao Zedong, called his constitutional change a reflection of the “common will of the party and the people.” A different but corollary amendment passed in conjunction with the annulment of term limits was the institutionalization of a national, anti-corruption agency called the National Supervision Commission (NSC). Ironically, the NSC gives President Xi more ability to crush his political opponents and protect the Communist party.

Overall, political pundits are divided on President Xi’s moves. Some optimists think this may make him more politically vulnerable in the long run, brazenly flouting the common interest of the people, which could trigger political infighting. Others believe social unrest will not be a factor to President Xi. Whether or not these constitutional changes help or hurt Xi and China matters less than the precedent it will set for the rest of the democratic world.

Interestingly, China resembles what Kim Scheppele calls a “frankenstate.” The government is composed of four branches: a legislative, executive, judicial and military. Scheppele avers that 21st century authoritarian leaders are cleverer than their 20th century counterparts, staying in power without use of overt, brute force. One of the ways they do this is by maintaining the “formal trappings” of democratic government while undercutting democracy in “technical” ways to “reign forever.” She writes that a “frankenstate is an abusive form of rule, created by combining the bits and pieces of perfectly reasonable democratic institutions in monstrous ways.” What is horrific about a “frakenstate” is not its individual parts, which exude democracy, but its frightful combinations of the parts.

While China does not have free and fair elections for its people, its leaders being elected by the Politiburo Standing Committee, its government at least resembles that of a functioning democratic state. Its separate branches ensures some appearance of checks and balances. The Chinese people do get to have a judicial system where they can be tried of their crimes as well as make their complaints heard. They do have newspaper outlets; grant it, they are heavily censured and monitored by the government, but open opposition in journalism is not prohibited. With the establishment of the NSC, perhaps China’s people will be able to try and boot corrupt politicians.

Although China is explicitly communistic, the point of my previous paragraph’s discussion is that, in conjunction with Scheppele’s definition of the frankenstate, the country is not all that far removed from democracy. China is a sort of mimicry of democracy, almost a democracy but not quite. What is alarming is that President Xi’s new changes further exacerbates its democratic backsliding. Using the idea of the “people’s party,” President Xi invokes populist ideals, suggesting that anyone against his moves are not truly Chinese. Jan-Werner Mueller cogently notes that populism is a “form of identity politics,” creating an us versus them mentality. In declaring absolute rule indefinitely, President Xi emphasizes that his definition of China is here to stay.

So where does this leave the rest of the world? China is a special case. Its people, who are maltreated politically, are not likely to display any civil resistance anytime soon. China is doing well on a global scale; in fact, its macro-political intentions, one can easily assume, is to overtake the United States as the economic empire of the world. This is frightening because, like the United States during the Cold War, its influence on globalization can be a real detriment to democratic ideals. Smaller, more volatile countries could adopt the Chinese model and establish life-long monarchs of their own, while still maintaining the veneer of being a democratic state. While President Trump’s words seem unserious, as they painfully always seem to be, the United States, in the face of an increasingly changing world environment, could enact similar policies if it sees itself losing a grip on political domination.

Links:

https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/11/asia/china-presidential-term-limits-intl/index.html

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/mar/04/donald-trump-praises-xi-jinping-power-grab-give-that-a-shot-china

Works Cited:

Muller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: UPenn Press.

Scheppele, Kim Lane. 2013. “Not Your Father’s Authoritarianism: The Creation of the ‘Frankenstate’.” European Politics and Society Newsletter.

 

4 Comments

  1. JASON GUSTAVO BALLEJO

    March 14, 2018 at 1:57 am

    This post summarized everything well enough to understand that China is backtracking its democratic ways. To begin with, not having elections open to the people and a committee choosing its leaders is far from a democracy. In addition, Not having limits on presidential terms can affect a country long term. This could lead to not having future elections anytime soon which could enrage people who oppose the elected president and could lead to serious events such as violent protests and activists taking extreme measures. This also seems to be proposed out of self interest as well to keep the president in complete power. It is very similar to the democratic erosion found in what im currently writing about. In Mexico, like china there is a democracy in place, but not much seems to be democratic. There is lots of corruption, the president does what he wants, and about 100 journalists have been killed in the year 2017 alone because they were trying to write about how drug lords and its corrupt president run the country. Unlike China though, presidents do have term limits, and in June of this year, people will be able to decide the fate with their vote in the presidential election, to see if this democratic backsliding can be reversed. Hopefully, none of the other smaller countries follow china’s model of democracy and the maltreated people of China become aware of how the abolishment of presidential term limits will only oppress them more than what they already are.

  2. SE BIN KIM

    March 14, 2018 at 5:11 pm

    This post most definitely highlights China’s “democratic” decline especially with China changing the presidential term limit. Personally, i think this removal of presidential term limits is one of the many populist changes Xi will continue to make during his now indefinite term. To add to your post, I thought it was interesting to how Xi and his supporters justified this term limit removal as needing more time to finish up his economic reforms and fight corruption and prevent power from falling into the hands of technocrats like his predecessors. I definitely do agree with your idea that China resembles what Kim Scheppele’s considers as a “Frankenstate”. China was on the road to implementing democratic policies but with Xi’s new changes, China is backtracking its democratic ways. A lifetime presidency may enable Xi to tighten his control on everything, from media to civil society and may even backfire on the idea of “fixing corruption” and be a part of the corruption itself. Asia as of right now is rising with populists such as XI, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, and former Prime Minister of Thailand Thaksin Shinawatra during a time of tension in asia, which magnifies the risk of conflict in countries that are going through democratic erosion.

  3. NAM SIK YOO

    March 15, 2018 at 2:29 am

    I really liked this piece because you not only explained why China’s abolishment of presidential term limits places China on a path towards democratic backsliding, but you also clearly pointed out to how this can have serious consequences throughout the entire world. I believe that the elimination of term limits for Xi Jinping is undemocratic and dangerous because it will infuse an even greater lust for power and a greater desire to exercise that power for selfish motives. Some people may believe that China should not be considered to be undergoing democratic erosion since it is a communist nation. However, I believe that your point on how China takes on the form of a frankenstate is a reason for why the country is deviating from its democratic ways. Like what you said, China’s government resembles that of a functioning democracy with a system of checks and balances. But now with the abolishment of presidential term limits, these democratic ways may start to fade, depending on whether or not Xi Jinping decides to reorient the country’s political institutions and laws in his favor. For me, like what you mentioned in the end, I am most fearful of how this decisions can play an affect on other democratic nations around the world. There is a chance that many democratic nations, particularly those that have troubling economies, get influenced by China’s practices. Hence, I believe that China, as a top economic power in the world, should act with greater moral authority towards the international community. Even though this decision to abolish presidential term limits has been made, China can take measures to revert backs to its democratic ways little by little, like the National Supervision Committee (NSC) that can give Chinese citizens the ability to root out corrupt leaders.

  4. ORAN REED FARKAS

    March 15, 2018 at 7:05 pm

    While I happen to agree with just about everything you said, I actually have a different take on the future of China in the world. We know that economics are closely related to democracy, and I feel it was overlooked. In the past 5 years (time since Xi has been in power), the rate of growth of both China’s real GDP and real GDP per capita have decreased dramatically. While China is currently a major economic power, it seems as if its power is decreasing by the day. This may very well be due to the democratic erosion, or this could be one major factor causing the democratic erosion we are seeing in China. Additionally, I foresee only two possible futures based off the current democratic backsliding in China. First, China may very well experience a complete erosion of democracy and become an authoritarian regime. Or, China could go through a complete overhaul of government and become a democracy. Based on the current climate in Hong Kong and the outward expressions of Chinese students abroad mixed with the factor of slowed economic growth, the second option is very possible. Since Xi is also the chairman of the Central Military Commission, a coup by officers opposing Xi’s tyranny could very well happen if the officers make sure to follow the steps of taking over media and communicating between branches and with the public well.

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