What's in a Term Limit Anyway?

Welcome back to Foreign Policy Friday, that usually-weekly (I’m trying y’all February really FLEW by) post that that kid you went to high school with writes. This week: Chinese president Xi Jinping goes full FDR and pursues a third term as president! Let’s jump in.

China currently has a law stating that an individual may not serve more than two consecutive terms as president, and that any official may not begin a new term if they are older than 68. Xi will be 69 in 2023 (ay) and will just have finished his second term.

BUT this week (on Sunday) the Communist Party (the best party! because it’s the only party!) "recommended" that the National People’s Congress (the Chinese legislature) remove the term and age limits. Not a huge surprise – Xi emerged from the recent National Congress with no clear successor, already a break with norms. Plus, the NPC is not exactly positioned to oppose the CCP, so “recommendation” is a bit of a weak word for what it is. For reference, the NPC has never, to my knowledge, denied a CCP recommendation – hard to imagine they’ll start now.

So what does it mean? A lot of people seem to fear that Xi is finally showing his true dictatorial colors, and plans to rule for life. However, if that was his only goal, there were other options. Xi is not only President – he is also the General Secretary of the CCP and commander of the military, positions with more power and no term limits. It is customary for the secretary of the party and the president to be the same person, but flouting convention would have been easier than changing the constitution. Xi could have ‘castled’, as Putin did in 2012, by leaving the presidency to a trusted puppet for one term and then returning to explicit power.

So Xi is deliberately letting everyone know that he plans to rule past 2023 – perhaps because he truly believes he is the only one who can achieve his vision of a modern China and wants to signal stability. He foresees that it will be deeply unpopular to enact the reforms necessary to stabilize China's highly leveraged economy, and that by consolidating power he assures continuity past the next 5 years, giving him ample time to pursue his program of reforms without worrying about challenges from within.

Or he could be a total dictator – one of the other proposals to accompany the scrapping of term limits is the creation of a new super-powered anti-graft agency, which Xi could use to take down political opponents under the pretense of fighting corruption, as he has for the last five years.

But it doesn’t even have to be so malicious – Xi could genuinely believe the stability narrative, but with so much power consolidated in one man, the chances of Xi accidentally steering China to disaster with no one brave enough to stand up to him can only increase.

But there is some good news out of this -- unusually, there was some public opposition to the proposals, with a former newspaper editor and powerful businesswoman urging the NPC to vote down the measure. Silver lining? #fpf