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Opinion It’s time to stop calling Xi Jinping the ‘president’ of China

A journalist holds magazines with images of Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing on Wednesday. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

Katherine Wilhelm is executive director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute and an adjunct professor at New York University School of Law.

In Chinese philosophy we find the concept of “rectifying names” (zheng ming). Confucius taught that failing to call things by their proper names is a failure to recognize reality, which leads to social and moral disorder.

He was right. One excellent case in point: what to call Xi Jinping.

This week, as the world’s media are following the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress reporters have been referring to Xi almost universally as China’s “president.” But that’s misleading. The congress is likely to give Xi an unusual third five-year term as the leader of the Communist Party. We know the title he holds as party leader: general secretary. And we also know that his immense power as the paramount leader of China derives from this party position, not from his concurrent position as head of state. So why on earth do we persist in calling him “president” instead of “general secretary”?

The position that we have come to call “president” in English is actually styled “state chairman” (guojia zhuxi) in the Chinese constitution. Mao Zedong held the same post for five years in the 1950s but gave it up because he was bored by the paperwork. The next “state chairman” was Liu Shaoqi, who died in detention during the Cultural Revolution, a year after being stripped of all his titles for alleged disloyalty to Mao.

The position fell into disuse but was revived in the 1982 constitution, with fewer powers. In a reflection of the party’s post-Mao backlash against excessive concentration of power, the chairmanship was held by a series of respected veteran members of the party politburo. In 1993, when China was trying to overcome the brief international chill caused by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, then-party General Secretary Jiang Zemin grabbed the post, and it’s been held concurrently by the party general secretary ever since.

It is generally believed that CCP leaders find the title of president useful when dealing with foreign countries. They can meet as peers with other heads of state rather than with the heads of other countries’ ruling parties — who might not be the same person.

Indeed, the title was so valuable to Xi that in 2018, he had the constitution amended to remove the two-consecutive-term limit on the presidency. Everyone in China immediately understood this as a signal that Xi intended to remain party general secretary for more than two terms. The general secretary position had no such term limit.

The state post holds no charm of its own for an ambitious politician. Mao, not one to share power, was happy to give it up — perhaps because its powers are mostly ceremonial. We never see photos of Xi sitting in a presidential office doing presidential things. It’s not clear that there even is a presidential office per se, with its own staff. The only time we hear from Xi as president is when he signs one-sentence orders proclaiming new laws that have been approved by the National People’s Congress, appoints new ambassadors who have already been approved by the NPC, or takes similar ministerial actions. Virtually all of the powers conferred on the president by the constitution are shared with the NPC or its standing committee. Only the pomp and circumstance of international travel as head of state belong to Xi alone.

Foreign offices and media seem to assume that no harm comes from referring to the CCP general secretary almost exclusively by his state title. But the practice generates a lot of unnecessary confusion about how China’s political system works. Ultimate power in China is held by the Communist Party, with state officials operating solely as its agents. Indeed, under Xi, the party has boldly stepped out of the shadows, issuing more and more policy documents jointly with government bodies or entirely in its own name. When we insist on using Xi’s state title while ignoring his party title, we participate in a charade that pretends important decisions in China are made by the apparatus of the state, instead of by the party.

In China’s own media, Xi is almost always identified as the party general secretary. Let’s follow their example and ditch the word “president.”