Souvenir necklaces with a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping are displayed for sale at a stall in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on February 26, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter

To some in the US, everything China does has an ulterior motive, evil, threatening America and the world. It seems the Communist Party of China’s proposal to remove the two-consecutive-term limit for the president and vice-president is no exception.

Mainstream US media are abuzz with headlines sensationalizing the draft constitutional amendment as Xi Jinping’s plan for a lifetime presidency. Johns Hopkins University Professor Hal Brands wrote in the March 4 edition of Bloomberg View that the amendment is China “its place in the sun,” probably in reference to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany’s aggressive foreign policy in the run-up to World War I.

But none of the fear-mongering over the draft term-limit amendment has substance, as it ignores China’s governance practices and fails to understand its political culture.

Removing the presidential term limit would be in line with the other two offices Xi holds – general secretary of the CPC and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) – which have no term limits but are elected or re-elected once every five years.

The offices with real power have been (and still are) CPC general secretary, CMC chairman and premier, because in China the Party is above country and government, not the president. The general secretary oversees policies, the CMC chairman controls the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and People’s Armed Police (PAP), and the premier is head of the government.

Since Xi is general secretary and CMC chairman, his power or influence would not be affected whether he is president or not. Jiang Zemin, president from 1993 to 2003, retained the “power behind the throne” during the Hu Jintao administration by clinging on to the CMC chairmanship two years after he stepped down as president. After that, he ruled by “proxy” because his protégés got elected to the powerful Standing Committee and Central Military Commission from 2003 to 2012.

History of the term limit

When Deng Xiaoping reformed China’s governance architecture, limiting the president to two consecutive terms was supposed to prevent lifetime one-man rule like Mao Zedong’s from happening again. Mao was generally regarded as a “great leader” (he united the country, etc) in his early years. But he became an “emperor” figure in the latter part of his rein, unwilling to give up power and purging those who challenged him.

Mao’s mixed legacy earned him the “70% right, 30% wrong” cliché, suggesting that had he stepped down after 10 years of ruling the country (1949-1958), China might have had been spared the Great Leap Forward Movement (1958) and the Cultural Revolution (1966). Both inflicted insurmountable damage and suffering on the country: tens of millions died from starvation and  violence, the economy was left in ruins, and a civil war was looming.

The collective leadership model

The Mao Zedong era

The People’s Republic of China has always been governed by a collective leadership in which policies are formulated through consensus. However, the power and influence of the “core” leader, first among other leaders, over the collective leadership has varied from one leader to another. Mao was undoubtedly the most powerful because he led the Communist Revolution and founded the “new” country in 1949.

But he did not have absolute power like past dynastic emperors. For example, his disastrous Great Leap Forward was approved after a consensus was reached. The leadership agreed that China needed to establish an industrial base, allowing it to accelerate steel production.

But the timing could not been worse, as China recorded its worst drought. As if that was not enough, the “sparrow campaign” created an explosion of grain-eating locusts. What’s more, concentrating farmers on steel production left crops to rot. All three natural and man-made disasters caused massive starvation, killing tens of millions of people – the exact numbers depend on whom one talks to or who wrote the history.

The leadership stopped the Great Leap Forward before it could push the country to the brink. What’s more, the CPC Central Committee sidelined Mao and elected Liu Shaoqi as president in 1959 to revive the economy and lead the country.

Mao, who had retained the chairmanship of the CPC, was able to mount the Cultural Revolution in 1966 by selling it as a way to rid China of feudalism, a rigid hierarchical social system that disallowed challenges to elders or authorities. For that, he had popular support because feudalism was considered the root cause of China’s past demises.

The Cultural Revolution turned out to be a power struggle between the Mao and Liu factions of the Communist Party. The violent measures used by the “radicalist” faction (led by the Gang of Four) to carry out continuous “class struggle” were too much for the people and leadership to swallow, culminating in  the Gang’s arrest, in 1976.

The Deng Xiaoping era

During his term as “paramount leader,” Deng governed through the collective leadership made up of the “Eight Elders,” a group of aging revolutionary veterans.

The Eight Elders debated policy proposals, but only after a consensus was conceived did they become law. For example, Deng’s rural reform,  the “household responsibility system” (which allowed individual farmers to lease collective land to grow crops for own consumption and sale) was debated passionately between the “reformists” and “Maoists.” Since the experiment had proved successful in Sichuan and Anhui provinces, a consensus emerged.

Today, the seven to nine members of the Politburo debate proposals behind closed doors. Once a consensus is reached, it is sent respectively to the 25-member Politburo and the more than 300-member (including alternates) Communist Party of China Central Committee (CPCCC) for approval.

It could be argued that the governing architecture did not really change with Deng’s political reforms, only the personalities. The processes  of getting “elected,” policy formulation and implementation were similar in the Mao and Deng eras.

Mao and Deng stood out as “paramount” or “core” leaders because the former united the country and the latter made China what it is today. Both men fought in the Revolution, entitling them to rule, but not absolutely.

Democracy, China-style

The National People’s Congress (NPC) is China’s parliament, electing members of the CPCCC, which in turn elects the 25-member Politburo and the smaller seven-to-nine-member Standing Committee.

Full and alternate members of the CPCCC are made up of senior officials from the government, military, state-owned businesses and banks and other state organs. They are usually nominated or selected by their own peers or retired leaders.

NPC deputies are elected by functional constituencies. Most of the approximately 3,000 members are chosen from provincial NPCs who are elected by county or township deputies, who in turn are elected by the public. The PLA, state-owned enterprises, ethnic minorities and other constituencies (migrant workers, etc) elect their own deputies to the NPC.

The NPC in theory is the most powerful state organ, but  overwhelmingly votes “yes” to all personnel selections and policies of the CPCCC, Politburo and Standing Committee.

But the “rubber stamp” image also exists in the Canadian, British and Australian parliamentary systems in which members (some would say are required to) vote along party lines.

Term limits in a modern context

Today’s China is not like the one Mao headed. The people are far more affluent, educated and exposed to the outside world, precluding any leader from being as powerful and influential as Mao or even Deng.

The “silver lining” that resulted from the Cultural Revolution was that people were finally able to think for themselves. More than 100,000 people voluntarily rallied in Beijing to protest against the Gang of Four in 1976.

Xi has had some success combating corruption, reducing poverty and pushing back US “threats,” and thus is seen as the leader who could effectively navigate the difficult problems facing China in the years ahead. Corruption, though reduced, is still rampant. The demographic issue created by the one-child policy threatens to undermine economic growth. Improving the environment and structural supply reform (reducing industrial overcapacity) are easier said than done because of resistance by local governments and state-owned enterprises.

Externally, the administration of US President Donald Trump is making China’s life more difficult: pushing increasingly provocative measures such as playing the Taiwan card; recruiting nations to counter the “China threat”; and threatening more “freedom of navigation and overflight operations” in the South China Sea and trade wars.

As for the term-limit issue, other countries have unlimited terms for their top leaders: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in his fourth term and  Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has been in office for more than 12 years. No one in the West has ever criticized these countries’ unlimited terms of leadership because they are democracies.

What is lost in this argument is that voters in democracies can and are routinely manipulated. In the US, the gun lobby and military-industrial complex contribute lavishly to politicians willing to carry their banner that owning a gun is a “right” and portraying China and Russia as enemies. Given the number of guns Americans own and huge defense budgets, evidently the propaganda has worked.

Taking the debate to its logical conclusion, China’s proposed constitutional amendment may not be what the anti-China crowd says it is.

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Ken Moak

Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China's Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.

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