Term limits: Who needs them?


This weekend some 3,000 delegates gathered in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing as part of the National People’s Congress (NPC). The NPC is China's annual rubber-stamp national legislature under strict control of the Chinese Communist Party.

The NPC voted almost unanimously to approve an amendment to China's constitution to abolish the term limit on the presidency, opening the way for Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely.

With a vote of 2,958 votes in favor, two against, three abstentions and one invalid ballot, the 35-year-old line in China's governing document limiting the president to two consecutive terms was removed.

A few thoughts on this move to consider:

There is no President in China: In the must-read book The Party by Richard McGregor, he goes to great lengths to explain there is no "President" in China. It is a word that has been hijacked by the Chinese Communist Party to appease Western diplomats and soften how foreigners see the rulers of China.

The New York Times reports, in China the political job that matters most is the general secretary of the Communist Party. The party controls the military and domestic security forces and sets the policies that the government carries out. China’s presidency lacks the authority of the American and French presidencies.

The newspaper goes on to say, China’s president is called “zhuxi,” which translates as “chairman.” Foreign presidents get a different title, “zongtong.” So in effect, Chinese people are referring to Xi as the “state chairman,” though in English his title is officially translated as “state president” to put him on an even footing with other world leaders.

The way the world comprehends the Middle Kingdom (frequently too often based on how we see and interact with our American government) has caused the Chinese presidency to become increasingly prominent thanks to China’s growing global stature. At home, Xi usually speaks as party leader; abroad, he appears as president, who is the formal head of state ensuring the prestige of state visits to the White House or Buckingham Palace.

No lame duck in Beijing: As posted earlier this month, markets have welcomed China’s plan to change its constitution. Many business analysts say the political certainty should be mostly positive for Chinese assets and global business in the short term. The move bolsters the Xi’s ability to drive through policies, such as deleveraging, proper economic reform, and anti-pollution campaigns. 

There is no doubt Xi needs more time to reform and improve China - as well as build the China Dream (whatever that means). Frankly, the Party has done well improving the quality of life for many Chinese, but it has done all it can under the current economic model. 

China needs a new plan, a new mission, and more competition to become a genuinely world-class economy and country. This will take more time. Just like we have special interests, factions, Blue and Red state voters, so does China. Politics across the globe remains the realm of doing what is possible and leading diversified coalitions. So Xi is telling his country and the world he needs at least ten more years, and not only five more years as a lame duck leader.

Two decades on top with an adjective: A top leader can probably efficiently govern for 15 to 17 years. The French president can lead for a total of 14 years, and even Americans picked FDR to win four presidential elections. Where the real problem comes into play is when a nation's top leader starts approaching years 20 and on and when feelgood adjectives like great, supreme, and wise are added before leader's name. 

When this occurs, you are going to experience more problems internally and externally. The absence of checks and balances and inability to keep factions at peace, no doubt raises the risk of policy errors and making too many financial moves solely for political, faction pleasing reasons, and not sound business and national reasons. As we have seen around the world, staying in the big chair for too long rarely ends well for the occupant and places the country under much distress.

Not a clueless dreamer: China's state-managed news media have said that Xi wants to abandon the term limit so he can keep his trinity of leadership posts. Xinhua reports, having a term limit on just the presidency is unreasonable because neither of Xi’s other two major posts — party leader and military chairman — has a similar ceiling. Xi seems determined to remain “three-in-one” leader because he sees himself on a historic mission to make China into a great power believing achieving this ideal will take more than a decade - if not longer.

People’s Daily said earlier this month that ending the presidential term limit does not “imply a system of lifelong leadership.” The point seems to be that while Xi may be around for a while, he won’t be another Mao, who remained in power even as he grew ill and incoherent with age.

I realize this is optimistic and requires the mindset of an enlightened statesman - but it would be foolish not to take these viewpoints into account. China's leadership has well telegraphed the need for a leader to have more than two terms for years. This decision didn't just happen on this weekend. No one can deny China is overwhelmed by emperor culture, burdensome bureaucrats, and special interests who have won using the past model are unlikely to give up their gains without being pressured.

The two who voted against: If I were to make an educated guess, the two votes against this idea were cast by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. Governing China looks tough for those in power, but there is always someone in the wings ready to sit in the big chair.

Marc A. Ross specializes in global communications and thought leader management at the intersection of politics, policy, and profits. Working with boardrooms and C-Suite executives from multinational corporations, trade associations, and disruptive startups, Marc helps leaders create compelling communications, focused content, and winning commerce.

Marc Ross

Based in Washington, DC, I specialize in thought leader communications and global public policy for public affairs professionals working at the intersection of globalization, disruption, and politics.

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