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The Repeal of the 2-Term Limit: Mayhem or Greater Stability?

Photo: Giulia Marchi/Bloomberg

By Neville Lai

The two-term limit for Chinese president was repealed by the National People’s Congress last month. This means that there is a possibility for Xi Jinping to rule for life. The first immediate implication is that it overrules Deng Xiaoping’s introduction of term limits in the 80s to prevent top leaders from having too much power. It also risks repetition of the disastrous consequences of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, as no one could stop the ruler.

While some argue it is a detrimental decision that may potentially lead to the downturn of China in the longer term, it is actually well thought-out. Since 2012, Xi has launched an anti-corruption campaign and has disciplined more than 1.5 million officials, including dozens from the party Central Committee and some from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI). He also actively and continuously cracks down on activists and dissidents, as well as increasingly exerts control over the media. All these internal actions amount to Xi’s accumulation of power by the elimination of his opponents.

After Xi’s unprecedented internal overhaul, he showcased his power to the world. He has launched the biggest military parade since the 50s. His Belt and Road Initiative will be one of the largest multi-continental, infrastructural and investment mega projects in history. Such elimination of term constraints will allow Xi to conduct his ambitious plan with a more consistent approach to long-term policy-making and perhaps enable him to tackle some of the economy’s entrenched problems. All these initiatives are the basis for the “Chinese Dream” for the world to see.

Xi has outplayed his predecessors such as Deng Xioping, who only wielded power informally as the de facto president. He even outmatched Putin because even the Russian president did not abolish his country’s constitutional limit. Instead, he maintained his power by having his close advisor Medvedev serve as president for a single term while himself being prime minister. But not many leaders in the world have dared to do what Xi did and not receive massive resistance, as the Chinese claim. This act has shown Xi’s ambition in a fully displayed manner.

Such concentration of power around Xi will either ensure China greater stability and perhaps enable better strategic development of the country in the longer term, or mayhem will result. As history shows, with greater concentration of power come greater risks. The elimination of term limits is an extreme measure, and will hence result in this dichotomy: it can either go very well or very wrong. There is probably no middle ground in this. But as of which direction China is heading, only the future can tell.

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