Xi Jinping plays the long game.
The 64-year-old Chinese president is only half finished with what should have been a 10-year term, but he’s already tossed term limits aside, and with them the rules and norms that have governed China’s leadership since 1982.
The National People’s Congress made it official last weekend, passing a set of constitutional amendments that removed presidential term limits and made Xi Jinping Thought even more central to the official canon by a 2,963-to-2-vote margin.
China’s most powerful president in decades doesn’t plan to relinquish that title any time soon.
It’s a first for the People’s Republic of China, but such power plays are popular worldwide. According to Professor Alex Baturo of Dublin City University, 92 other leaders have extended, discarded or circumvented term limits since 1945.
It appears to pay off: Overall, nondemocratic leaders who shared Xi’s title of “president” ruled for an average of 7.2 years. But those who extended their term limits served an average of 15.1.
Even those who came to power — in active democracies and later extended their term limits served 10.3 years, according to Baturo, author of “Democracy, Dictatorship, and Term Limits” and co-editor of the upcoming “The Politics of Presidential Term Limits.” (Those numbers are based on 1960-2010 observations and exclude those currently in office.)
The stereotype that Chinese leaders, from dynastic emperors to Mao Zedong, serve for life is outdated. It has been since Deng Xiaoping came to power in Mao’s wake, determined to create a system resistant to the rise of another Mao-esque personal dictatorship and the disasters that followed.
Deng imposed term limits and created a power-sharing system in which the president and his allies nominated a successor halfway through their two terms. Once the successor took office, the previous president and his allies remained within the party as a powerful check on the new president.
Or at least that was the theory. Professors Junyan Jiang of Chinese University of Hong Kong and Yang Zhang of American University recently analyzed biographical data for almost a thousand party officials to tease out their loyalties and find how factions fared in major party shake-ups.
They found the apparent orderly transition of power from Deng to Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao was a “mirage” built by backroom deals, coalitions and personal dynamics, rather than true institutional strength in the system.
Under Xi, that mirage was exposed.
“There has to be a living former paramount leader who is powerful and healthy enough to lead a counter-coalition to check the power of the successor,” Professor Jiang said. “In Xi’s case ... there were two relatively weak predecessors who were in conflict with each other: Jiang was old and weakened while Hu was never able to fully consolidate his power.”
Xi hasn’t bothered to name a successor, and has purged Jiang and Hu’s remaining allies as part of his vast anti-corruption campaign.
His consolidation of power may pave the way for ambitious economic reforms, said Yukyung Yeo of South Korea’s Kyung Hee University.
Yeo said Xi seemed to now be taking aim at corporate elites and at the sprawling, inefficient state-owned enterprises that have resisted major reforms.
“Xi might need more time to root out corrupt party elites in business,” Yeo said.
Like Xi, those seeking to crown themselves president for life often couch it in the language of economic stability. They say that once those pesky elections and transfers of power are out of the equation, leadership will be free to make difficult decisions in the long-term interests of the country.
This argument seems a bit too convenient, and Baturo found no statistically significant difference between average growth in gross domestic product (GDP) before and after the chief executive’s limits have been lifted.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Daron Acemoglu and his co-authors found the opposite to be true. In a forthcoming article, they review 175 countries and find those that adopted a democratic form of government between 1960 and 2010 enjoyed 20 to 25 percent higher per capita GDP over the next 25 years than they would have otherwise.
Term-limit extensions generally followed waves of newly independent countries throughout the world. Term limits were often built into their constitutions, only to be targeted by ambitious early leaders.
In the broadest strokes, it occurred first in Latin America in the 1950s and ’60s, followed by postcolonial Africa in the 1970s and ’80s, and finally in Europe and Asia after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Xi’s aggressive foreign policy is an abrupt departure from decades of Deng’s “hide your strength, bide your time” approach.
Michelle Gavin, former U.S. ambassador to Botswana, wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations that “President Xi’s power grab adds a new dimension to the appeal of the ‘Chinese model’ for some African leaders, and strengthens the head winds faced by those working to entrench democratic institutions.”
China has thus far modeled orderly transitions of power, but few other leaders who extended their term limits stepped down on their own terms or died in office.
A few lost reelection and conceded. Many more were removed by force. In some cases, such as with Niger’s Mamadou Tandja, their attempt to consolidate power was the very thing that did them in.
In 2009, Tandja called a constitutional referendum to extend his term beyond Niger’s two-term limit. The referendum led to a constitutional crisis when he dissolved the country’s uncooperative legislature, and the Nigerien military forced Tandja from office the following year.
Tandja was lucky. He was cleared of charges and freed. No fewer than eight other leaders who extended term limits, from South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza García, were assassinated in office.
If the data is any guide, Xi’s power grab has raised the stakes for the remainder of his time in office, however long that may last. He’s likely to serve longer than he would have otherwise, but also more likely to face an unhappy ending via coup, lost election or even assassination.
Based on the very small sample of paramount Communist Chinese leaders, however, there’s no reason to believe the latter is imminent.
Chairman Mao died in office, and his successors stepped down peacefully. But it’s not unthinkable that Xi Jinping breaks precedent here, as he has so often in the past.