But all of this is out the window now because of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent announcement that term limits on the presidency will be abolished. This means that he will likely be China’s ruler for the rest of his life, turning at one stroke an institutionalized autocracy into a personal one. This builds upon the massive cult of personality he has been cultivating, with “Xi Jinping Thought” now canonized in the Constitution alongside Chairman Mao.
Clear rules putting limits on the power of any one individual are critical for the success of any political system, democratic or not, because no one individual is ever wise or benevolent enough to rule indefinitely. Succession is therefore a point of weakness of all dictatorships: the lack of rules necessitates a damaging power struggle upon the death of the supreme leader.
A great advantage that China has had over contemporary Russia was precisely in those rules: should Russian President Vladimir Putin drop dead of a heart attack tomorrow, a huge power vacuum would emerge and plunge the country into uncertainty as powerful elites fought one another. But even short of succession, regular leadership turnover means that new ideas and new generations can rejuvenate policy and hold prior leaders accountable to some degree.
The rules that have just been tossed out the window were the result of China’s own painful experience during the Cultural Revolution. The weakness of the country’s traditional authoritarian political system has for centuries been called the “bad emperor” problem. A dictatorship with few checks and balances on executive power, like independent courts, a free media or an elected legislature, can do amazing things when the emperor is good: think of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew during the early years of Singapore’s growth. The downfall of earlier Chinese regimes has been the emergence of a bad emperor, who could plunge the country into terrible crisis since there were no effective limits on his or (as in the case of the Tang Dynasty’s “Evil Empress Wu”) her power.
The last bad emperor that China had was Mao Zedong. Mao liberated the country from foreign occupation but then went on to trigger two enormous catastrophes: the Great Leap Forward starting in the late 1950s and the Cultural Revolution starting in the late 1960s. The latter set China back a generation and scarred the elites who endured it. Collective leadership emerged as a direct reaction to that experience: Deng Xiaoping and other senior leaders of the party vowed that they would never let a single individual accumulate as much charismatic power as Mao.
The opacity of the Chinese system does not allow us to know definitively how or why Xi has been able to consolidate power behind his personal rule. Part of the motive may stem from worries that power has leached out to a number of regional and ministerial barons who have been corrupt and hard to control from the center (like Bo Xilai, former party chief of Chongqing). Another issue may have been resentment from “princelings” (children of high Communist officials) like Xi of the outsiders who were let into the party under Jiang Zemin and his successors.
Another factor is the simple passage of time. As in Eastern Europe, the experience of living through a harsh dictatorship scars individuals and inoculates them from wanting to resurrect the system that allowed this type of unchecked power. As I was once told by a senior party official: “You cannot understand contemporary China if you don’t understand what an utter disaster the Cultural Revolution was.” But the generation of elites that were sent to the countryside in that period are getting older, and the country has not done anything to educate its young people about Mao’s bloody legacy. They can hear songs from that era like “The East Is Red” and imagine that this was a time of greater solidarity and happiness.
The seemingly casual abolition of term limits in China shows why constitutional government is a good thing. The Chinese Constitution is written by the party’s top leadership and does not constrain them. By contrast, Latin America is full of constitutional democracies with judiciaries that are often surprisingly independent. Presidents in Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia and elsewhere in the region have tried to extend their terms in office but they actually have to spend political capital to do so, and they have not always been successful.
Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, for example, hoped to add a third term to his presidency in 2009 but was stymied by the constitutional court, which ruled the extension unconstitutional. He may have done good things for Colombia as president, but the country is much better off with a system that forces even popular presidents to leave office. Last year, Ecuador’s authoritarian President Rafael Correa was similarly forced to step down, and his successor, President Lenín Moreno, has breathed new life into the country’s democracy.
How bad China’s current emperor will be has yet to be determined. So far, he has crushed the hopes of many Chinese for a more open, transparent and liberal society. He has emphasized the party over the country, cracked down on the slightest instances of dissent and instituted a social credit system that uses big data and artificial intelligence to monitor the daily behavior of the country’s citizens. As such, China under Xi may end up showing the world the unimagined forms that a 21st century totalitarian state can take.