University of California, Los Angeles

Is China’s Termination of Term Limits A Threat to Democracy? by Isabella Guerra @ the University of California, Los Angeles

This past Sunday China’s National People’s Congress voted in an overwhelmingly majority to abolish its presidential term limits, allowing China’s current presidential leader, Xi Jinping, to remain in power indefinitely. This newly added amendment would be altering the term limits that were set in place under Deng Xiaoping in 1981. Although China has never been recognized as a fully democratic state and has its roots based in communist practice, this act of constitutional change should not be taken lightly. As a world superpower, China is setting an example to the other leading countries that this type of political infringement is no longer off-limits and could possibly be applied to their leaders/democracies as well.

Out of the 2,964 ballots casted inside Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, 2,958 voted in favor of this amendment with two opposed, three abstaining, and one vote invalidated (TIME). President Xi’s other posts as head of the ruling Communist Party and head of the military have no set term limits, therefore it is believed that these were the key motivators for this constitutional change. The Communist Party first proposed this amendment on February 25 and the final vote was held on March 11.

Along with the stamping out of presidential term limits, the NPC voted in favor of the establishment of an “all-powerful national anti-corruption agency,” dubbed as the National Supervision Commission (CNN). The alleged goal of the NSC is to take over for the pre-existing corruption departments within multiple government agencies. The formation of the NSC may seem to be harmless, as it will already be fulfilling the same duties as current agencies, but the Commission will also be given the authority to target anyone who carries out public jurisdiction rather than limiting it to members of the Communist Party.

Expert’s chief concern with the NSC is how it will be added to Xi’s arsenal of Chinese power, as it will ultimately authorize Xi to suppress any and all who appear to be politically disloyal under his rule. This “accumulation of power” is being described as reminiscent to the early actions of Putin in his efforts to gain complete control over Russia and its people.

However, throughout Xi’s time in office, he has expressed a confident, populist leadership style and a strict stance on official corruption, which has earned him a notable measure of popular support. With this accumulation of power, it’s uncertain of whether or not Xi will bring about a positive or negative reform for the country and its people.

The type of governmental body President Xi appears to be going for is one that eerily resembles that of an authoritarian government, but with just enough technicalities to not officially be considered authoritarian. A type of “wolf in sheeps clothing” affair, if you will. Kim Scheppele of Princeton University has concisely pinpointed this type of political rule and leadership back in an article from 2013. Scheppele would consider the present-day status of China to be in a sort of “Frankenstate,” which draws on numerous positive and inclusive trappings of a democratic government while still undermining such democracy in technical ways.

Although China is ruled directly by the Communist Party, aspects of their political agenda emulate that of a democracy. China’s lack of free and fair elections, uncensored media, and an independent judiciary reflect their authoritarian intentions, but their persistent declarations that “in China, democracy means ‘the people are the masters of the country’” are geared to masquerade these oppressive practices as their own form of democracy. China’s push for this claim to democracy is solely embedded in its desire to “legitimize its own actions…as representing the will of the people” (WashPost).

Heading back to Scheppele’s model of the Frankenstaten, it appears to be quite obvious that China and its leaders are on the right track to creating their own version. Scheppele claims that the “sophisticated 21st century authoritarians…are leaders who want to stay in power for the foreseeable future and [can] now achieve their ambitions without brute force,” which is essentially what Xi and the NPC have done with the scrapping of term limits and the launch of the NSC.

You may be thinking, “How can China’s actions within their authoritarian regime affect real democracy and democratic countries?” In the US’s case, President Trump commented on the outcome of the results by saying, “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll give that a shot someday” (SCMP). In this political climate, such a comment should not be taken light-heartedly. China’s global influence is continually expanding and with their flourishing economy, it is fairly safe to say that this success will not come to an end at any time in the near future. With greater success and an astonishingly, forceful global impact comes the power to steer other countries in their same political direction, ultimately posing as a threat to the erasure of genuine democracy.



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



    March 15, 2018 at 7:13 pm

    First off, great blog post Isabella! I really enjoyed the connections you made with China and democracy. Although China is not traditionally democratic, this sudden grab of power by President Xi is alarming. We need to think about what this will mean for China considering the fact that it will be hard for the opposition to gain footing. This could very well be the birth of a dictator. I also agree with you that this decision will not only affect China but countries around the world. China has huge influence on the world and it will be interesting to see how the rest of the world will react.

  2. Zitian

    May 3, 2019 at 8:04 am

    Greeting, Isabella Guerra:

    From my perspective, the blog does point out a critical concept of “the people are the masters of the country,” which has been a major analytical gap between conservative and liberal scholars in the context of China. This is a highly value points and I would like to elaborate it.

    The word of “democracy” in Chinese does mean “the people are the masters of the country.” Popular discourses during the 1989 Tiananmen Student Movement referred it as “the people shall be in charge of national affairs,” implying a direct assault against the communist party. However, such a discourse has been a brainchild of the communist party since the 1940s when it struggled against the National Government. Historical investigations indicated that the early communist understanding of democracy checked all criteria according to contemporary definitions: completive elections, uncensored media, and grass root organizations.

    Then, how did a genuine democratic vanguard become into an authoritarian regime? One of the key drivers is the manipulation of “the people are the masters of the country.” In the preface of the current Chinese constitution, the leadership of the Chinese communist party is statutorily determined as “representing the people.” It legitimatizes the one-party domination and allows the party to use “democracy” to repress political rivals.

    Therefore, this is in no way a democracy. Chinese communist party has played the game of altering practical and theoretical contents of this concept. If one were to care about Chinese democratic development, one shall be careful of approaching the definition of democracy.

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