Close-up portrait of Mao Zedong, portrait of the chairman Mao and detail of Chinese flag. Image: iStock

China’s main news outlets have come out to support and justify the ruling Communist Party’s stunning decision to change the country’s constitution to remove the 10-year limit on the presidency.

This is hardly surprising because, like in any authoritarian country where organs must show their “absolute loyalty” to the ruling regime, they have no choice but to endorse the move no matter how controversial it is.

Yet, it doesn’t mean “all Chinese people support the amendment” and blindly or passively “hope it can contribute to [their] well-being” as the Global Times, an influential party-backed publication claimed. On the contrary, there has been a considerable online push-back against the proposal since it was announced on Sunday, forcing the draconian regime to launch an intense censorship campaign.

Some Chinese netizens feared that their country could become North Korea, China’s despotic and regressive neighbor, while a former journalist publicly urged blocking the proposal because abolishing the two-term limit for the presidency means “moving backward into history [Mao Zedong’s turbulent era].”

It’s reported that there was even disquiet and opposition among the 200-strong Central Committee, one of the ruling party’s key decision-making bodies.

Although they didn’t openly voice their views, privately many other Chinese, including party members and intellectuals, probably share such apprehensions.

The constitutional change will likely pave the way for President Xi Jinping to rule China with absolute and unchecked power for an indefinite period

Indeed, they should be concerned and even alarmed because the constitutional change will likely pave the way for President Xi Jinping to rule China with absolute and unchecked power for an indefinite period and such a long one-man rule is seldom, if ever, a good thing.

Perhaps with the aim of preventing criticism, just after Xinhua, China’s official news agency, announced the proposal in a bland 35-word statement, the Global Times, an influential relative of the People’s Daily, published its editorial, stating that “the change does not mean the Chinese president will have a lifelong tenure.”

Faced with an increasingly widespread backlash from both outside and inside China, the People’s Daily, the Communist Party of China’s flagship paper, on Thursday issued the same statement.

Yet, it’s hardly convincing. These two papers and other state-run outlets, such as the China Daily, have argued that the amendment corresponds to a “new era” in which the country is implementing “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” whose ultimate goal is to make China “a great modern socialist country” by the mid-21st century.

This means the constitution is being forcibly changed to allow Xi to oversee his grand vision. Should he be determined to stay in power to see through the first stage of such a plan by 2035 or the second stage by 2050, he would rule the country for 23 years or 38 years. By then, he will be 82 or 97, respectively.

Admittedly, coupled with many other developments in China since he took power in 2012, the removal of the 10-year presidential limit indicates that Xi is willing to do whatever is necessary to reign supreme over the Asian power for a long time.

The party’s mouthpieces, including the three above-mentioned publications, editorialized that the amendment is vital because it will “improve” and even “perfect” the country’s leadership.

However, as exemplified by numerous past and current cases, including China under Mao Zedong – who founded the PRC in 1947 and ruled it with an iron fist until his death in 1976, at the age of 83 – and North Korea under a tyrannical and hereditary regime, quite the contrary is true.

Under Mao’s 27-year tenure, the Asian nation suffered many calamities, including the Great Leap Forward that led to the Great Famine and the disastrous Cultural Revolution. According to some estimations, the Great Famine killed up to 45 million people.

For his propagandists, Xi is a virtuous, sagacious and omnipotent man, “who makes things happen” and for some outside watchers, he “is not an impulsive, hot-headed, or irrational leader.” Consequently, there is no way for him to act in such a despotic, idiotic and destructive manner.

It’s still unlikely – God forbid – that he will become another Mao or “a Kim Jong-un.”

That said, as Li Datong, who circulated the open letter, rightly asserted, by abolishing the two-term limit, China is “planting the seed once again of chaos.” The key reason why Mao, Kim and other dictators rule badly or catastrophically is that not only does absolute power corrupt absolutely and demoralizes as a 19th-century British politician put it, but also an absolute ruler tends to act blindly and uncontrollably.

In fact, in an effort to prevent China from producing another Mao and returning to Mao’s turbulent era, Deng Xiaoping, the reformist leader who transformed the backward and poor country into a global economic powerhouse, introduced the two-term cap into the state constitution in 1982.

Such an institutionalized rule was followed by Jiang Zemin and especially Hu Jintao, Xi’s two immediate predecessors. This helped the authoritarian nation have some kind of checks and balances and a relatively orderly transfer of power, which, in return, hugely enabled China to maintain political stability and impressive economic growth during the past decades.

Indeed, as has been rightly noted, collective leadership – rule by consensus rather than strongman – and two-term limits are two of the most important factors that have enabled the authoritarian regime not only to survive but to thrive while others, including (dysfunctional) democracies, have failed.

In this sense, by removing the two-term limit on the presidency, Xi is, in fact, abolishing what has so far helped China prosper and adopting what once held it back. This is one of many ironies and contradictions the world is witnessing in China’s Xi Jinping.

How can he lead the PRC into becoming “a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful” in a new era, when he is, in some key respects, bringing it back to the bad old days of one-man rule that still haunt many Chinese today?

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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