Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, March 09, 2018

An executive with Chinese characteristics

The Economist editors, as usual, offer some good explanations of basics.

Xi Jinping decides to abolish presidential term limits
[T]he Communist Party announced its plan to get rid of presidential term limits… Such limits may not matter much in themselves… The presidency is a weak office. Mr Xi could stay in power as the party’s general secretary and military chief, to which term limits do not apply. But the abolition is still important partly because it is the clearest evidence that Mr Xi does, in fact, plan to ignore convention that party chiefs step down after ten years, and keep all of his jobs after 2023. It also pierces the veil of politics and shows what kind of ruler he wants to be. At a time when he is trying to boost China’s image globally as a modern, outward-looking and responsible state, the political system he governs seems premodern, opaque and treacherous.

The system itself is extremely unusual. China has two ladders of authority: the government and the party. The party hierarchy outranks the state one. In other countries, the ministers of finance and foreign affairs (government jobs) are usually the most important ones after the president or prime minister. In China, they are not even in the top 25. Neither man is a member of the Politburo, let alone its inner sanctum, the Politburo Standing Committee. Formally, the People’s Liberation Army is controlled by the party, not the government. In one respect, though, Chinese politics is all too normal. As with other Leninist systems, it is bedevilled by the problem of leadership succession…

In the 1980s, reacting to the chaos of the Mao era, Deng Xiaoping tried to make the system more orderly and predictable by introducing new rules, norms and precedents. These included the reinstitution of the post of president (there had not been one since 1968), along with a two-term limit for the holder of that office as well as the vice-president. Mandatory retirement ages were also introduced… In a speech in 1980 [Deng] said the system should avoid an “over-concentration of power”, which, he warned, was “liable to give rise to arbitrary rule”. He said it should make a clearer separation between the party and the government. And it had to “solve the problem of succession in leadership”…

As the abolition of term limits shows, he failed—or at least, his reforms failed to rein in Mr Xi. Instead of avoiding an over-concentration of powers, the president has made himself chairman of everything. Instead of separating party from state, he has injected party control into areas which had once been relatively free of it, such as private companies…

Mr Xi has used his anti-graft campaign to rid himself of other rivals… This hardly looks like a predictable, orderly system…

So why has he done this? He could have stayed on as general secretary. His ideology, called “Xi Jinping Thought for a New Era”, would still have been in the party’s own charter, giving him the status of final arbiter in any dispute. The answer must be that it is because of the kind of leader he wants to be: with his power on full display, not hidden behind the scenes…

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