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The Implications Of China Eradicating Presidential Term Limits


The Communist Party in China announced this weekend it intends to abolish presidential term limits, which means Xi Jingping, the country's president, could remain in power indefinitely. The move represents a dramatic departure from rules that have been in place for decades. And it nudges the country towards the kind of centralization of power that has not been seen since the days of Mao Zedong. With us to talk about the implications of this decision is Elizabeth Economy, the director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thanks for joining us.


CHANG: Why did the Chinese decide to have term limits in the first place?

ECONOMY: Well, as I think you hinted, in the early period of Deng Xiaoping's tenure in 1982, he made the decision to put in place term limits for president and vice president in order to avoid the kind of chaos and tumult that can sometimes happen when you have a single authoritarian leader, as China had with Mao Zedong.

CHANG: So why reverse that now? What does the party - why does the party want to get rid of term limits? Or what's the articulated reason?

ECONOMY: There really hasn't been an articulated reason. I think it is a natural progression from what we've seen emanating from Xi Jinping over the past five years - having his thought enshrined in the Constitution in a way that was only done by Mao Zedong previously, his failure to identify a successor at the 19th party congress in October. So I think this is all part and parcel of his own consolidation of power. But I also think that it helps him because he wants to be able to realize his vision for the country both on the domestic front, in terms of addressing the anti-corruption campaign, rectifying poverty, cleaning up the environment, but also in his grander vision, reclaiming China's greatness on the international stage. And I don't think that Xi Jinping believes there's any other leader who is capable of pushing forward and achieving his own vision.

CHANG: Is a part of this also driven by Xi Jinping's desire to cultivate a cult of personality that's very similar to the cult of personality that surrounded Mao Zedong?

ECONOMY: I don't think that Xi Jinping would ever want it to be said that he had a cult of personality. But I do think that in effect that is what is happening. There was a very significant effort made by the propaganda apparatus to portray Xi Jinping as a man of the people, someone who could go and stand in line in front of a dumpling shop. There were songs written about Xi Jinping. So there really was an effort to humanize Xi Jinping in a way that was not the case with Mao Zedong.

Over time however, we've seen some of those same trappings of cult of personality that were present during the Mao period also emerge during Xi period - so Xi's demands that the party and the military and the media declare their personal loyalty to him - that was unheard of, you know, in the previous 30 years - pictures of Xi Jinping everywhere, that sort of ever-present Xi Jinping. I think that too is something that comes out of the Maoist period - and just frankly, this sense of fear that whatever Xi Jinping says goes. And if you don't agree with Xi Jinping, you know, you shouldn't voice your opinion because you will end up in trouble - that there will be serious repercussions.

CHANG: What about the relationship between the U.S. and China? I mean, the U.S. won't be able to hit the reset button with a new Chinese leader for what could be years and years. How does that affect the dynamic between the two countries?

ECONOMY: Well, I think it sends an important signal that we need to take Xi Jinping's longer term objectives very seriously. So when Xi Jinping, for example, discusses the importance of China reunifying with Taiwan sooner rather than later, when we look at what's going on in terms of the erosion of sovereignty in Hong Kong, I think those are the kinds of issues that we should now understand they don't have to be resolved in the next five years.

CHANG: Right.

ECONOMY: These are the kinds of priorities that Xi Jinping has established. And he's now basically said - or the system has basically said that he has as long as it's going to take to try to achieve them.

CHANG: Elizabeth Economy is author of the forthcoming book "The Third Revolution: Xi Jingping And The New Chinese State." Thank you very much for joining us.

ECONOMY: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.