CWCP's Dr. Yohanes Sulaiman and Dr. Brad Nelson offer their reactions to the the news that China plans to eliminate presidential term-limits.
Yohanes Sulaiman: This is an interesting development in China, showing how much Xi Jinping has managed to completely consolidate power in his hands. Even though previous leaders tried to bypass the rule and rule behind the shadow (e.g. Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin), they were only successful to a limited degree. And once they transitioned out of power, their successors quickly consolidated their own rule, which limited their continuing grip on political power in China. Here, Xi managed to break the rule that was imposed after the death of Mao and the fall of Gang of Four, to prevent another Mao from emerging.
What are the implications? In the short term, none whatsoever. China will continue on its present political path. It will keep increasing its power, pushing the envelope, etc., though I don't see Beijing attempting to change the status quo. Why? Because (1) China is not ready yet to do so, and (2) China still has a host of domestic problems, notably economic problems, such as overproduction/overcapacity, internal fears of an economic slowdown, and economic malfeasance (e.g. state's seizure of Anbang Insurance). The fact that money is moving out of China so rapidly that the state has to crack down on it should give one pause. I am not saying that China will collapse anytime soon - far from it. But this just shows how unstable China's condition is currently is, making it difficult for them to challenge the status quo.
In the long run, though, this may be a problem. Long-term rulers pursue policies that will allow them to stay in power, but at the expense of the nation. Decision-making processes become atrophied, as institutions lack new blood that could give fresh insight and perspectives. In such situations, leaders often pick bad policies, and that causes long-term problems.
Brad Nelson: My first reaction is to think about how this news impacts US-China relations. China is, in my view, a regional revisionist power. It's already doing things to upset the regional status quo. I've made precisely that point here. The "cabbage" and "salami slicing" efforts in the South China Seas and China's OBOR are but two prominent initiatives of a host of examples we can point to as evidence of China currently creating a new regional order, limiting America's role and movement in Asia, and binding other regional states to China's nascent "Asia for Asians" order. That will now certainly continue.
What seems most assured is that China, for the foreseeable future, will continue to press its political, economic, and security interests outward. Xi's vision of a globally powerful and respected China necessarily requires the Red Panda to flex its muscles. As a result, then, this picture of an assertive, possibly more hostile, China isn't just a temporary blip or something that can be wished away; it's a fact of international politics, one that has ripple effects worldwide. One of which is that there's an increasing likelihood of the US and China butting heads in the future on a host of issues, in Asia and worldwide. While I'm not so sure I buy into Graham Allison's work on the Thucydides Trap, especially as it relates to Sino-US relations in the 21st century, Xi's long-term presence in China does further intensify the dynamics that underpin a potential costly, destructive power transition in Asia. Given all of the above, this story does have the potential to be the defining event in world affairs in 2018, and even beyond.
BN: I'm curious about your take on the weakness/strength of Xi politically. As you know, that's a big debate that's emerged--whether scrapping the term-limits means Xi is riding high and confident or feeling vulnerable and actually weak. Your thoughts?
YS: One thing for sure is that Xi's power in the Communist Party is unprecedented in post-Mao China. As powerful as Deng was back in the 1980s, he still had to deal with divergent factions, ranging from the moderates (e.g. Zhao Ziyang) to conservatives (e.g. Li Peng). Similarly, Jiang Zemin was hemmed by different factions. Hu Jintao ruled by consensus. Xi Jinping has been more successful in reducing the domestic constraints on his rule, namely through his anti-corruption drive. At this point, there is no strong political bloc left in China that can effectively challenge Xi Jinping.
There are several ways to see why the Xi-controlled Communist Party decided to scrap the term-limit.
1. The official explanation says there is really a genuine internal fear of the United States, and so to further cement China's rise to power, Beijing needs a steady hand on the helm. I don't buy it, however. Changes in the leadership ranks may cause some distraction and turmoil in the short-term, but that is offset by the long-term benefits. Promotions and turnover in power allows for fresh ways of thinking (which reduces ideological and policy rigidity and staleness) and generational change, which always quells discontent within any type of government -- including an authoritarian one.
2. Xi is so powerful that he can dictate whatever he wants. That is probably the most common explanation, though it oversimplifies the situation. We have to look at China's current economic condition, which while very impressive from the outside, is marked with mounting debt and economic mismanagement, not to mention a very high overcapacity problem. In fact, one may argue that China's "Belt and Road Initiative" is actually more of an attempt of China to export its overcapacity elsewhere (dumping). Frankly, should the economy collapse, whether sooner or later, whomever holds power at that time will be blamed for this, and this factor might be what drove Xi's policy.
What does that mean? We could see that this term-limits debate is his warning, that basically he is going nowhere, so everyone better stick with the economic reforms. Or perhaps Xi simply wants to remain in power even as the economy slows down. At this point, it is really difficult to find any reliable analysis on the current power struggle in the Party. While I tend to stick with the former argument, I do believe it also reflects some desperation on Xi's part.