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Social Development

On the Removal of Term Limits

Mar 13 , 2018
  • Lawrence Lau

    Ralph and Claire Landau Professor of Economics, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

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The recent amendment to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China to remove term limits for the President and the Vice-President has aroused significant reaction around the world. The President, the Vice President and the members of the NPC were previously limited to two consecutive five-year terms. There are fears that China will become more authoritarian and dictatorial after such an amendment, and that a President might serve for life.

However, it is important to observe that the President of China, as the titular head of state, actually has no real power under the Chinese Constitution. The real executive power and authority are vested in the Communist Party of China (CPC) and exercised through its General Secretary. In the past several decades, the General Secretary has frequently also served concurrently as the President, but not always. For example, while Jiang Zemin served as General Secretary from 1989 to 2002, Yang Shangkun served as President from 1988 to 1993, and then was succeeded by Jiang. What matters most is the General Secretary. In the Charter of the CPC, there is no specified term limit for the General Secretary, even though there is an informal customary and unwritten rule since the Sixteenth National Congress of the CPC in 2002 that no one older than 68 will be appointed or re-appointed to membership on the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau, which includes the General Secretary. President Xi Jinping, currently aged 64, only began his second term as the General Secretary in late 2017. For him to retain authority and power beyond the end of his current term, he needs to be re-elected to a new term at the 20th National Congress of the CPC, expected to be held in late 2022, when he will be 69, just over the unwritten limit of 68. The unwritten rule can be changed at the time if necessary. But it is neither necessary nor sufficient to remove the presidential term limit from the Chinese Constitution for President Xi to continue to lead the CPC because the General Secretary and the President are two separate positions.

In fact, President Xi’s second term as President has not yet begun. It is worth noting that removing the term limit does not necessarily mean that Xi Jinping will go on for more than two-terms. For example, there was no presidential term limit in the United States in the 162 years between 1789 and 1951, during which 33 different presidents served, but only one President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, served more than two terms, because the U.S. was in the midst of World War II. In fact, quite a few presidents did not serve more than one term. In any case, the voters are always free to decide whether enough is enough in the absence of a term limit. There have also been many attempts to repeal term limits around the world. Even in the U.S., there have been attempts to repeal the Twenty-Second Amendment (the term limit amendment) to the U.S. Constitution, for example, in 1985, during the presidency of Mr. Ronald Reagan. There is nothing intrinsically wrong or undemocratic to have no presidential term limit in a constitution.

Since the presidency has no real authority or power, why is the amendment being proposed now? One can only speculate. First of all, it is apparent that the anti-corruption campaign at the most senior levels of the CPC, the government and the armed forces is not over, judging from the recent press revelations of new investigations and prosecutions. The removal of the term limit may therefore serve as a useful signal of the resolve of the current administration to see the campaign through to the very end, and that any actual or potential opposition should take heed. In addition, as there is currently no clearly designated successor to the position of the General Secretary, unlike with the previous two administrations, the removal of the term limit may also be intended to discourage premature jockeying and lobbying on the part of the potential aspirants to the position of the General Secretary. It also shows that President Xi has no intention of becoming a lame duck any time soon.

It is true that this and other concurrently proposed amendments to the Constitution will strengthen President Xi’s authority and power. However, the concentration of power is probably necessary in order to take on the strong and entrenched vested interests, both inside and outside the party and government. Over the years, systemic corruption has reached the highest echelons of the party, the government and the armed forces. Without a powerful center, it is impossible for the anti-corruption campaign to succeed in a sustained manner. Moreover, the vested interests have become an impediment to further economic reform. Among those that may be opposed to further opening of the Chinese economy are the monopolistic state-owned and privately-owned enterprises. Among those that may be opposed to the reduction of excess production capacities and letting the market play the decisive role are the local governments, the collaborating private entrepreneurs, and the banks that finance the excess capacities. The provision of public goods that are in high demand, such as environmental preservation, protection and renewal, health care, elderly care and the alleviation of poverty, requires strong governmental leadership. Centralised authority and power are absolutely essential for overcoming the opposition of the local governments and the private moneyed interests and pushing forward the economic reform agenda in China. Many in the West have been disappointed at the degree of economic reform during the past five years. However, they should understand that successful implementation of economic reform is dependent on the use of state power. For example, only a powerful central financial regulator can take on all the well-connected financial “cowboys” now operating in China, to reduce the risks of a financial crisis. All of this suggests that increased centralisation can actually enhance economic stability, reduce risk and uncertainty, and improve economic efficiency in the current Chinese environment.

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