Interview: David Bachman on Xi Jinping’s term limit set to be removed, and reckoning in U.S. China policy
By Wen Liu March 3, 2018
If you have looked at China news lately, you saw these headlines: “China’s Xi could rule for life, as two-term limit set to be scrapped” --Washington Post; “One-man rule under Xi Jinping should worry us all” –Time; “President Xi’s Strongman Rule Raises New Fears of Hostility and Repression” --NYT; “Xi Jinping, President for Life; China's supreme leader abolishes term limits so he can stay in power” --WSJ. They were all reactions to the news that the Communist Party proposed to remove from China’s constitution the two-term limit for the country’s president. This is overwhelming development to watch and comprehend. To help us do that and more, here is Prof. David Bachman of the UW Jackson School of International Studies, whose specialties among other things are China’s political institutions.
WCWD: In the last few days, China news or the outcry over the China news was all about this proposal by the Chinese Communist Party to the National People’s Congress to remove from China’s Constitution the two-term limit on China’s president. That means Xi Jinping is going to serve beyond 2023, the end of his otherwise two five-year terms. As someone who studied China’s political institutions, what was your first reaction?
David Bachman: Reaction was this wasn’t a good thing to do. It weakens the institutionalization of the system. It creates a lot of subterranean political conflict in China. It raises questions about the future of the Party, and what happens ultimately when there is a successor to Xi Jinping. And finally it makes it all too easy to fit in with this view growing in the United States about China as enemy, and to make it easier to do a second cold war with China.
WCWD: To suppress even a small number of netizens expressing their opposition to the change to the term limit, China’s censors banned words like “ascend the throne,” “ten thousand years,” “chairman for life,” “proclaim oneself as emperor,” etc. One other word or term stood out, “Xi Zedong.” Does Xi Jinping, if he is to serve without term limit, remind you of Mao Zedong, China’s one-time chairman for life, whom you wrote about in your Great Leap Forward book?
David Bachman: Certainly the fact the censors were responding to this speaks to the sensitivity of these issues. If Xi is making claim that he would be president for life, presumably general secretary for life, in that respect he resembles Mao. In many other respects, he does not. But the sense I think of many certainly educated Chinese and the sense among ambitious members of the Party Central Committee was that it’s a step backward, either for the aspirations of the ambitious members of the Central Committee or for people in Chinese society more generally, to think that one individual is so indispensible that they cannot leave office, and as someone who gets older and older will continue to exercise power, whether they are saying it directly or not. The thought about as Xi gets into his late seventies, maybe even older, whether he is capable, whether he is open to other views, whether he is increasingly divorced from the reality of Chinese society. All these are concerns that were raised about an elderly Mao, which it looks like in this respect are being reduplicated or can be reduplicated obviously. We have to get through Xi’s second term before we start actually confronting Xi’s third, and fourth terms. Nonetheless, it doesn’t look good.
WCWD: A People’s Daily editorial on the constitutional amendment used a new term, “Three-In-One,” meaning the leadership of China the state, the Communist Party, and the People’s Liberation Army. Mentioning that there was no term limit for the Party General Secretary or the Central Military Commission Chairman, it seemed to say that removing the term limit for the President was just to align Xi Jinping’s three titles. What do you think of this reasoning?
David Bachman: I think that’s quite a bit of, what’s the word, it’s not wishful thinking, but it is sort of the other way to simply say, oh, the general secretary can serve more than two terms, the chairman of the military affairs commission can server more than two terms, would seem to me an alternative way to cope with this problem. I think this is not a question of legalism or whatever, it is a question of political power. In that sense, I think that, that justification is pretty phony. And certainly in the past, in the reform era, the general secretary was not the president at the time. In the 1980s, for example, Li Xiannian was the president when first Hu Yaobang was general secretary. Yang Shangkun was the president when Jiang Zemin was the general secretary, at least the beginning of Jiang Zemin’s reign. There is nothing that says that automatically the president of the People’s Republic has to be the general secretary or other position.
WCWD: In recent weeks, or months, there have also been many articles written about a reckoning or a new approach in U.S. China policy. Kurt M. Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs under Obama, said, as quoted in the New York Times, that even the most optimistic, hopeful and in some ways romantic about the U.S.-China relationship were forced to confront a new China. Do you agree with Campbell and why?
David Bachman: Well I read that essay he wrote with Ely Ratner. It does do a good job of suggesting the limitations of the American hopes for U.S.-China relations. But what they didn’t do is they didn’t say what would change about U.S. China policy. They looked at the rationales and concluded that some of the rationales, where China not becoming a democratic society, not improving human rights fundamentally, not observing international law United States thought it should, and so on, concluded that United States’ ability to push China in those directions had not worked and it was time for something new. But they say nothing new. They don’t say anything about what, how, U.S. policy should be.
The issue is, even if you strip away all those hopes the United States may have had about China’s political change in the future, we are dealing with the issues on the ground today. Do you cancel your economic discussions and dialogs with the Chinese? I don’t think so. We still want to have an interest of understanding of what China’s positions are, making clear Unites States positions to China. We are each trying to persuade the other about what they think is important to do and various types of relations.
I think the critique of some of the assumptions is fine. But I don’t see that really changing all that much. We are still stuck with the position where China from the American perspective is neither a good friend or ally on one hand, or a clear enemy on the other. Since we don’t have a good set of understandings of policies or ideas about what to do about this state, this very powerful state, that occupies this in-between position, we are going to have lots of thoughts about what went wrong in the past, how we were deceiving ourselves about policy measures, that doesn’t tell us what to do in the present, and what to do in terms of advancing American interests. So what they say is fine, but as I say, there is no fundamental sort of implication other than what’s wishful thinking about the relations from the U.S. side.
WCWD: With this reckoning among China specialists, we have also seen more criticisms or statements from U.S. media or U.S. government against China. The Washington Post, for instance, talked about China’s influence operations in the U.S. Congress held hearings on China’s exporting of authoritarianism. And the FBI Director Christopher Wray warned American universities of Chinese spies on campus, etc. Do you think Americans should be alarmed of China?
David Bachman: This is a very sort of delicate issue. I think there is a sense of people blowing things out of proportion and generalizing from a few cases. I am afraid, I’m really afraid, that there would get to be blanket suspicion of Chinese in the United States. FBI Director’s comments struck me as very wide-ranging and broad-brushed, the sort of sense that any Chinese student is a potential spy, any Chinese scholar is a potential spy, is something that is quite detrimental to long-term relations between the two sides. That said, there clearly have been instances of economic and political espionage that has taken place.
That said, there clearly have been instances of economic and political espionage that has taken place. It’s also clear that there seems to be stepped-up United Front work by the part of the Communist Party abroad in terms of trying to mobilize constituencies. And there remain profound questions about Confucius Institutes in what they are actually transmitting, and what their implications are for academic freedom, and so on.
In some ways I think there is a need to be on guard. But there is also a need not to over-exaggerate the situation. China is making rapid progress in modernization. Maybe in minor senses, espionage can contribute in a minor way to some of China’s advances. But this is sort of downplaying the policies of the Chinese government, the hard work of the Chinese people. And to think that it’s all dependent on espionage or that all is the result of U.S. connivance by weak-minded academic administrators and others I think fundamentally misses the story here.
(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)