WA China Watch Digest Special!

Panel discussion: Xi Jinping "presidency for life," what it means for China, U.S.-China relations

By Wen Liu   Mar. 26, 2018

Xi Jinping swearing in on re-election. People's Daily screenshot.Early this month, in response to the news that China would amend its constitution to end the term limits for China’s president, Prof. David Bachman shared his views in these pages.

On March 11, the news became reality: China’s National People’s Congress approved the amendment and officially abolished the presidential term limits.

Following that, on March 17, with all of 2,970 NPC delegates voting in favor and 0 against, Xi Jinping was re-elected to his now indefinite term as China’s president. Immediately, People’s Daily extolled Xi as China’s “Helmsman,” just as Mao had been.

How do our veteran China hands/panelists see the new Xi Jinping “presidency of life” or “rule for life”? Here we ask:

Considering that term limits for China’s top leaders were put in place under Deng Xiaoping to prevent another Mao-like one-man rule, and that the newly amended constitution allows Xi Jinping to be just that, a new one-man rule, what do you think of this historic move or step back in China’s politics, for China and for U.S.-China relations?

Sidney Rittenberg, Sr.Sidney Rittenberg, Sr. (Bio: Starting in 1944 as an American GI in China, Sidney’s dramatic China career included joining the Chinese Communist Party, working closely with first generation Chinese leaders, heading a rebels group during the Cultural Revolution, and sitting in jail for 16 years as a foreign spy. Continuing that career in the U.S. since 1980, in Washington state in particular, Sidney has been a consultant, scholar, and author, especially of his China biography "The Man Who Stayed Behind.")

Our media have been ignoring the basic facts about the recent removal of term limits on the Chinese president and vice president. They are persistently telling the public that this means Xi Jinping has made a “power grab” which will enable him to “rule for life.”
         Nothing could be further from the truth.
         First—the president of China is not a power-holder. He doesn’t rule anything. It is a ceremonial position. The power continues to rest with the leading CPC committees—the Central Committee, its Political Bureau, the Political Bureau’s Standing Committee, and its General Secretary (currently Xi Jinping).
Xi Jinping with NPC delegates. People's Daily screenshot.         None of these positions are subject to term limits, nor are they at all affected by whoever happens to be president. In the 1980s, Hu Yaobang held power as Party Secretary, while the venerable Li Xiannian was president. When Li Xiannian paid a state visit to President Reagan, I paid a personal visit to Li Xiannian, who complained bitterly that he didn’t even have the right to decide which places in America he wanted to visit. No one suspected Old Man Li of being a “power holder.”
         So if it is not about a “power grab,” then why did the Chinese leaders make this move?
         China is pressing forward with a program of fundamental economic reforms, which will require continued lower-speed development. This will mean belt-tightening and some painful readjustments for many people. This gives rise to a desire to install a firm, consistent leadership that can guide the country through this period of severe testing and into the stable, balanced, sustainable prosperity that hopefully awaits on the other side. It is, therefore, comforting to have the present leader, Xi Jinping, installed in all his leading positions, whether power-holding or ceremonial.
         As long as we continue to judge Chinese Communist leaders by the way American politicians think, we will have big problems in getting the facts.
         As for what effect the confirmation of Xi's position might have on U.S./China relations, I believe that having a stable Chinese leadership that knows exactly what it needs should help in the relationship with a White House that seems not to know just what it wants, except for adulation.

Dan HarrisDan Harris (Bio: Designated a Super Lawyer, Dan is almost synonymous with China Law Blog, one of the best law blogs on the web, also named to ABA Journal’s Blawg Hall of Fame. A leading authority on legal matters related to doing business in China, his perspective on international law issues have been sought by the Forbes Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, etc. Dan writes and speaks extensively on Chinese law, especially on protecting foreign businesses in their China operations.)

Xi Jinping re-elected with full votes. People's Daily screenshot.China’s Communist Party will do whatever it can to stay in power in China and to extend its power outside China. Xi’s changing the constitution to consolidate and retain his power is a symptom of that.
         As far as how this will impact or should impact US-China relations, about all I can say is that the U.S. (like pretty much every other country) has always been willing to have good relations with authoritarian, even tyrannical regimes, depending on the politics and needs of any particular time. I am not prepared now to say what the U.S. should do with China two years or even six months from now.

Carson TavennerCarson Tavenner (Bio: Carson’s China interest sparked early when he initiated a sister-school relationship between his school, Puyallup High School, and Nankai Middle School in Chongqing, Seattle's sister city. He taught East Asian history at the Air Force Academy where he had graduated. With his own Tai Initiative on China, Carson revived the once dormant Washington Sichuan Friendship Association, and has been promoting U.S.-China sub-national level communication and understanding.)

I think the removal of term limits has put all doubt to rest in any China-watcher’s mind that we are looking at a new era, as named by Xi himself and as further defined by Carl Minzer who just released his new book, End of an Era. The ending era is the era of reform; the new era is the self-named Xi Era.
         What makes the ending of term limits particularly worrisome is not just the rule-changing behavior itself but the combination with "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era" which in the past few months has moved extremely rapidly into canonization within the PRC's core ideology. Tantamount in power – though not necessarily similar in practice -- to “Mao Zedong Thought,” Xi Thought is sure to become the basis of many officials’ historic actions in the coming months and years.
         There will be many substantial differences from the Mao Era. Do not think Xi Jinping will be like Mao Zedong simply because similar patterns appear; much is also new. We must likewise be careful not to use the word "dictator" when describing him – for now. Xi is not a dictator. He is the elected President without term limits in a system that will vote into policy whatever he says - for now. Dictators generally do not have a legislative power structure being used to support their rule; they are simply ruling totally by their own personal power and often that's military strength. Yes, it looks very, very, similar to Xi's situation and maybe in time the political scientists will agree to call him a dictator, too.
China Constitutional Amendment. People's Daily screenshot.          I recall the adages “pride goes before the fall” and “absolute power corrupts absolutely;” Xi Jinping appears to lack the personal leadership skills to keep himself from sliding down the dangerous slope of personal pride, greedy ambition, and immoral abuses of power for self-promotion, glorification, and survival.
         I get concerned when reading adulatory news from PRC/CPC mouthpieces, one of which claimed last week that up in the Tibetan region there were some villagers who were calling Xi Jinping a deity. Such news, if true, is a scary move toward what was true at the end of the Mao era. If the news is not true, then we have equal concern for the journalistic and editing purposes of the PRC news; what message are they building?
         On WeChat, the most prolific PRC social media at this time, I saw some evidence in December and January that definitely NOT all PRC residents agree with the adulation of Xi, comparing it to the North Korean behaviors of constant clapping when in Kim Jong Un’s presence. One video used historic video of Mao receiving similar clapping, unceasing. These videos were presented without commentary but in an atmosphere of satire. I have seen no such videos newly shared this month.
         In closing my comments, to recognize the end of the Reform Era, I encourage us all to try and use “People’s Republic of China” (PRC) and not "China" when naming the political actor of the coming years. China is a civilization. The name of the recognized sovereign nation is the People’s Republic of China (PRC). When Mao died and the PRC opened up through the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and others, the China-watchers of America and the diplomats were willing to politely drop the prefix “People’s Republic of” in order to reduce diplomatic tension and increase the ability of Americans to see China as a future collaborator and close friend.
         Let’s look forward and work toward -- with the powers given us -- a vision of close, enduring relationships between Americans and Chinese. Perhaps, seeing us, Xi Jinping may use his power to reach out with a workable vision of cooperation between his PRC and our USA.

(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)