From “Collective Autocracy” to “One-Man Rule”

From “Collective Autocracy” to “One-Man Rule”

Following news of proposed amendments to China’s national Constitution including removal of the two-term limit for the head of state, thereby opening the door for Xi Jinping to hold the title of president for life, state-affiliated tabloid Global Times issued a defense of the move:

Removing the constitutional restriction to two terms is a significant decision made by the CPC to serve its historic mission in the new era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, Su Wei, a professor at the Party School of the CPC Chongqing Municipal Committee, told the Global Times on Sunday.

“Especially in the period from 2020 to 2035, which is a crucial stage for China to basically realize socialist modernization, China and the CPC need a stable, strong and consistent leadership. So removal of the section of the clause about the presidency in the Constitution is serving the most important and fundamental national interest and the Party’s historic mission,” Su said. [Source]

Elsewhere, the response has not been so optimistic in tone. Concerns have mounted over the apparent regression away from institutionalization of the leadership transition, first imposed by Deng Xiaoping as a way to avoid the autocratic and chaotic rule China had experienced under Mao Zedong. Evan Osnos writes in the New Yorker:

On Sunday, China moved to end a two-term limit on the Presidency, confirming long-standing rumors and clearing the way for Xi to rule the country for as long as he, and his peers, can abide. The decision marks the clearest expression of Xi’s core beliefs—his impatience with affectations of liberalism, his belief in the Communist Party’s moral superiority, and his unromantic conception of politics as a contest between force and the forced. Decades after Deng Xiaoping warned against “the leadership of a single person,” China is reëntering a period in which the fortunes of a fifth of humanity hinge, to an extraordinary degree, on the visions, impulses, and insecurities of a solitary figure. The end of Presidential term limits risks closing a period in Chinese history, from 2004 to today, when the orderly, institutionalized transfer of power set it apart from other authoritarian states.

“China emerged from the chaos of the Maoist era precisely because it moved away from one-man rule and toward collective leadership,” Carl Minzner, a China specialist at Fordham Law School, and the author of “End of an Era,” a new book on China’s authoritarian revival, told me. Even without meaningful popular voting, China’s political turmoil was curtailed by term and age limits and informal rules that require consensus. “Start pulling out those very building blocks on which the entire edifice is built, and what is China left with?” Minzner asked. [Source]

In The Week, Noah Millman writes that, “China’s government runs the risk of devolving from something fundamentally institutional — unfree, but subject to processes that allow for interest-group competition and rational planning — to something fundamentally autocratic.” Likewise, in Foreign Policy, James Palmer writes that the erasure of government by consensus raises the possibility of major errors with no built-in channels for correction:

Xi, meanwhile, appears to have entirely transformed Chinese politics from collective autocracy to what’s looking increasingly like one-man rule. This switch should leave everyone very worried, both inside and outside China. A country that once seemed to be clumsily lurching toward new freedoms has regressed sharply into full-blown dictatorship — of a kind that’s likely to lead to dangerous and unfixable mistakes.

[…] The public record of China’s internal decision-making in those decades is pitifully scanty. But collective rule, and the ability to debate within the party and to sometimes listen to outside voices, undoubtedly played a powerful role. With power now concentrated in a single man, and with nobody willing to challenge him, the likelihood of calamitous mistakes has soared. The first great disaster of the Xi era may have already begun; the carceral archipelago of Tibet and Xinjiang could easily metastasize into the rest of the country in ways that would, at best, hamstring economic growth and cripple intellectual development. [Source]

In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Jeremy Wallace outlines the specific risks of rising “personalism” in government:

Changing the constitution to keep the leader in office is precisely the kind of change that scholars use to gauge rising or falling personalism. Here’s why political scientists see the personalization of power as a dangerous development.

First, personalism makes calamitous mistakes more likely, as policy follows the whims of an individual. Think Nicolae Ceaușescu’s demographic policies in Romania, Saddam Hussein ignoring diplomatic efforts to avoid the first Gulf War — or the famine that resulted from Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Fast forward to the policy errors and flip-flops under Xi’s leadership. In 2015, officials encouraged stock purchases and blamed foreigners when the inevitable sell off occurred. In 2016, a poorly constructed “circuit breaker” designed to halt stock market crashes instead caused them — before being quickly removed. [Source]

In China, journalist Li Datong penned an open letter to Beijing representatives of the National People’s Congress, which is set to green light the new proposal in their annual meeting next month, asking them to cast dissenting votes. From China Media Project’s translation:

As I understand it, the stipulation in the 1982 Constitution that the national leaders of China may not serve for more than two terms in office was political reform measure taken by the Chinese Communist Party and the people of China after the immense suffering wrought by the Cultural Revolution. This was the highest and most effective legal restriction preventing personal dictatorship and personal domination of the Party and the government, and it was a major point of progress in raising the level of political civilization in China, in line with historical trends. It was also one of the most important political legacies of Deng Xiaoping. China can only move forward on this foundation, and there is emphatically no reason to move in the reverse direction. Removing term limitations on national leaders will subject us to the ridicule of the civilized nations of the world. It means moving backward into history, and planting the seed once again of chaos in China, causing untold damage. [Source]

The position of president is the least powerful of Xi’s three top posts (the other two, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, are not restricted by term limits). In a conversation on ChinaFile, Susan Shirk writes:

The term limit for the presidency was the one written rule that could have blocked Xi’s ambition to rule indefinitely into the future. The presidency itself is not an important role in the Chinese system—it has virtually no real authority. The top leader’s power is based much more on his role as head of the Chinese Communist Party and commander in chief of the military. But after the 1989 Tiananmen crisis, when the leadership split over the protests occurring in more than 130 cities, China created a system of fused leadership in which a single individual serves as C.C.P. general secretary, chairman of the Central Military Commission, and the president. This model of fused leadership, reflecting the lingering effect of Tiananmen on Chinese politics, has facilitated Xi’s drive to smash the norms of institutional collective leadership and grasp power in his own hands.

In the same conversation, Taisu Zhang argues that the removal of term limits indicates that Xi puts greater significance in the role of president than his predecessors and many observers:

Xi’s reason for pushing for a constitutional amendment may very well be that to do otherwise would be to risk losing one of his major sources of political capital, indeed one that is much more critical than would seem obvious to outsiders. He is someone who has wrenched power from other factions and branches of government through massive law enforcement campaigns and the empowerment of relevant institutions, and who regularly emphasizes the need to maintain control over constitutional interpretation and enforcement. Some might interpret this latter tendency as mere autocratic insistence on the primacy of the Party over the Constitution, but that would nonetheless imply that he understands the Constitution as something that must be controlled—and, therefore, something that holds major sociopolitical significance. Someone who has pursued these strategies may well be particularly wary of creating political tension between a constitutionally empowered President and the Party Secretary, and would therefore strongly prefer to occupy both positions.

Yanmei Xie, meanwhile, argues that in making all institutions subordinate to the Party, Xi is serving a greater agenda:

Xi has shown himself to be a believer in institutions—as long as they remain subordinate to the Party and serve as instruments of his rule, not competing centers of authority. He has been revamping the bureaucracy, strengthening the legal system, and even selectively empowering the civil society—environmental NGOs are authorized to sue polluters—to ensure Chinese officials diligently execute central directives and hold them accountable if they don’t. Poor implementation of his policy is now tantamount to corruption and political disloyalty, subject to investigation and punishment by the Party’s much feared discipline watchdog. Next week’s National People’s Congress will formally establish the National Supervision Commission, which will administer party disciplines to all public servants including non-party members to ensure they do what they are told.

In short, Xi has primed the Chinese party-state for his agenda, which is to restore the Middle Kingdom to its historical grandeur and global greatness. But that means the Party and the country now rises and falls with Xi the person. [Source]

See the full ChinaFile discussion for more views on the topic. A recent episode of U.C. San Diego’s GPS podcast also looks at Xi’s new role in a discussion with Susan Shirk, Barry Naughton, Victor Shih, and Lei Guang.


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