In a mostly ceremonial parliamentary vote on Sunday March 11, the National People’s Congress of China voted to allow the abolishment of term limits for President Xi Jinping, allowing him to stay in power indefinitely. While China is not nominally a democratic state, its example should be a warning for democracies around the world. After all, President Donald Trump lauded President Xi’s move by suggesting,“maybe we’ll give that a shot.” China’s action also recalls Vladmir Putin’s consolidation of unlimited power in his earlier stages as leader of Russia, while also effectively retaining the country’s appearance as a democracy.
Experts speculate that President Xi’s decision is justified by his two other posts: as head of the Communist party and of the military, positions which both do not have term limits. Out of the 2,964 ballots counted in Beijing’s Great Hall of People, only two delegates voted against and three abstained, underscoring the minimal opposition to President Xi and the party. President Xi, who before this decision was already being compared to Mao Zedong, called his constitutional change a reflection of the “common will of the party and the people.” A different but corollary amendment passed in conjunction with the annulment of term limits was the institutionalization of a national, anti-corruption agency called the National Supervision Commission (NSC). Ironically, the NSC gives President Xi more ability to crush his political opponents and protect the Communist party.
Overall, political pundits are divided on President Xi’s moves. Some optimists think this may make him more politically vulnerable in the long run, brazenly flouting the common interest of the people, which could trigger political infighting. Others believe social unrest will not be a factor to President Xi. Whether or not these constitutional changes help or hurt Xi and China matters less than the precedent it will set for the rest of the democratic world.
Interestingly, China resembles what Kim Scheppele calls a “frankenstate.” The government is composed of four branches: a legislative, executive, judicial and military. Scheppele avers that 21st century authoritarian leaders are cleverer than their 20th century counterparts, staying in power without use of overt, brute force. One of the ways they do this is by maintaining the “formal trappings” of democratic government while undercutting democracy in “technical” ways to “reign forever.” She writes that a “frankenstate is an abusive form of rule, created by combining the bits and pieces of perfectly reasonable democratic institutions in monstrous ways.” What is horrific about a “frakenstate” is not its individual parts, which exude democracy, but its frightful combinations of the parts.
While China does not have free and fair elections for its people, its leaders being elected by the Politiburo Standing Committee, its government at least resembles that of a functioning democratic state. Its separate branches ensures some appearance of checks and balances. The Chinese people do get to have a judicial system where they can be tried of their crimes as well as make their complaints heard. They do have newspaper outlets; grant it, they are heavily censured and monitored by the government, but open opposition in journalism is not prohibited. With the establishment of the NSC, perhaps China’s people will be able to try and boot corrupt politicians.
Although China is explicitly communistic, the point of my previous paragraph’s discussion is that, in conjunction with Scheppele’s definition of the frankenstate, the country is not all that far removed from democracy. China is a sort of mimicry of democracy, almost a democracy but not quite. What is alarming is that President Xi’s new changes further exacerbates its democratic backsliding. Using the idea of the “people’s party,” President Xi invokes populist ideals, suggesting that anyone against his moves are not truly Chinese. Jan-Werner Mueller cogently notes that populism is a “form of identity politics,” creating an us versus them mentality. In declaring absolute rule indefinitely, President Xi emphasizes that his definition of China is here to stay.
So where does this leave the rest of the world? China is a special case. Its people, who are maltreated politically, are not likely to display any civil resistance anytime soon. China is doing well on a global scale; in fact, its macro-political intentions, one can easily assume, is to overtake the United States as the economic empire of the world. This is frightening because, like the United States during the Cold War, its influence on globalization can be a real detriment to democratic ideals. Smaller, more volatile countries could adopt the Chinese model and establish life-long monarchs of their own, while still maintaining the veneer of being a democratic state. While President Trump’s words seem unserious, as they painfully always seem to be, the United States, in the face of an increasingly changing world environment, could enact similar policies if it sees itself losing a grip on political domination.
Muller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: UPenn Press.
Scheppele, Kim Lane. 2013. “Not Your Father’s Authoritarianism: The Creation of the ‘Frankenstate’.” European Politics and Society Newsletter.