Succession Politics and the Cost of Eliminating Presidential Term Limits in China

By Taisu Zhang
Friday, March 9, 2018, 10:00 AM

On Feb. 25, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) issued a formal amendment proposal to abolish constitutional term limits for the presidency. Assuming the amendment goes through, which it almost certainly will, there would no longer be any formal institutional obstacles preventing Xi Jinping from staying in all three of his current positions—Party Secretary, Chairman of the Central Military Commission and President—for life. This would be an exceedingly clear signal that the “Deng Xiaoping framework” of Chinese high politics, under which lifelong rule by a single strongman gave way to regular retirement, rotations, and collective decision-making, has collapsed, and that Xi will remain in power for the foreseeable future.

I have already discussed some of the underlying rationales behind the constitutional amendment in an earlier essay, and now turn to the institutional consequences of (potentially) lifelong single-man rule. There are some short-term benefits to be reaped, in the form of more efficient and decisive policymaking, but these are almost certainly outweighed by the long-term damage done to political stability. Chinese politics may remain relatively stable for as long as Xi himself holds the reins, but as is true of nearly all autocratic regimes, orderly succession poses a far greater problem. For foreign countries, even the short-term challenge of dealing with a more centralized and cohesive Chinese state likely pales in comparison to the long-term geopolitical risks created by potentially chaotic succession politics.

As long as Xi maintains firm control over the levers of power—which is by no means guaranteed, even within his lifetime—the removal of term limits can work in favor of political efficiency: he no longer faces any risk of being treated as a lame-duck president (or party secretary), and whatever incentive underlings may otherwise have had to hold out for the next regime essentially disappears. Policymaking and implementation will almost certainly become more streamlined and effective and the principal-agent problems that have plagued Chinese governance at all levels for decades will likely become less severe.

Perhaps more importantly, lifelong rule can alleviate political shortsightedness: if Xi faces no firm deadline to step down, he will feel less political pressure to prioritize short-term gains over longer-term ones. Moreover, he would no longer be able to shift long-term political costs and blame onto successor regimes, and must instead internalize any and all consequences of his own policies.

Given the immense economic and geopolitical challenges that China now faces, these are not trivial benefits. Over the next decade, China needs to deal with an increasingly protectionist and potentially hostile United States, while combating ever more complex economic and ecological problems at home. Xi has also promised fairer and more equitable growth—which will likely demand both some form of economic redistribution and the construction of a sturdier social security net for China’s rapidly aging population. All of these demand patient commitment to strategies that may not yield sociopolitical dividends for many years, but which also require constant and diligent execution. For politicians with shorter time horizons and weaker enforcement powers, this would likely be both an impossible task and a thankless one, in the sense that they are unlikely to be in power by the time the dividends finally arrive. At least in that sense, Xi’s likely ascension into lifelong, unchallenged rule may very well shepherd in a period of more effective policy making.

That said, these efficiency-oriented benefits come at enormous long-term cost to political stability. Very rarely do lifelong rulers properly empower their successors, unless, of course the successor happens to be a family member; China is unlikely to be an exception. If Xi does rule for life, tensions in Beijing will almost inevitably heighten as he ages—and as speculation about succession intensifies both inside and outside the Party. Without term limits to alleviate pressure, succession politics will likely be unusually vicious, posing enormous risks both for society at large and for the personal interests of Party elites. Two strategies are available at this point: identify a trustworthy heir and try to empower him or her enough to ensure an orderly succession, or attempt to reinstate term limits, rule-by-committee, or both, and thus defuse some of the political tension. Unfortunately, neither strategy is likely to succeed.

The first strategy runs afoul of a basic paradox in autocratic politics: lifelong rule raises the stakes of succession, and therefore increases the amount of political capital the heir needs to assert control; but at the same time, the greater the amount of political capital possessed by the heir, the greater the threat he potentially poses to his predecessor. Without the familial continuity provided by traditional monarchies or imperial systems, few modern dictators have felt comfortable enough with their potential heirs to truly transfer large amounts of power to them, and this has been especially true in Communist regimes—think Stalin and Mao. Instead, what tends to follow their demise, either physical or political, is a period of intense conflict that deals lasting and sometimes irreversible damage to the operation of government institutions.

If a country is lucky, succession fights can yield a new political equilibrium in which decision-making is more consensual, at least among political factions, and stability eventually returns. The Deng era managed to do this for China—and led to the creation of both informal and formal term limits in the first place. Xi could potentially try to accelerate this reconciliation process by reinstating term limits for his successors or reestablishing consensual decision-making within the CCP Politburo. Either measure might provide a new focal point for factional cooperation.

The problem, however, is that the credibility of any such campaign will inevitably be weakened by the current demise of the “Deng consensus.” Cooperative politics are much easier to establish the first time around, at least in the sense that they can benefit from greater optimism and faith (however blind) in the strength and resiliency of new norms and institutions. The fact that Xi has been able to dismantle the “Deng consensus” in such a short period of time will almost certainly move the political attitudes of Party elites towards normative and institutional skepticism. Unfortunately, norms, institutions, and agreements at the level of constitutional politics are only as strong as people’s willingness to believe in them—which would imply that the prospects for political stability post-Xi would be significantly dimmer than they were in 1978.

There are, in theory, two other strategies that Xi could pursue: creating hereditary rule within his family, or allowing open elections—either general or intra-Party. Needless to say, neither seems remotely plausible at the moment, although I have no doubt that hardline liberal pessimists do entertain the former as a possible scenario, whereas some unusually optimistic leftists might argue for the latter by pointing to the example of Chiang Ching-kuo. Unless one is willing to go down either of these extreme paths, then the most likely outlook is one of short and medium-term boosts to political efficiency, followed by severe long-term instability. That seems like a very poor bargain, both for the general population and for the CCP itself.

For other countries, especially those in the West, these predictions have different implications: in the short-term, they will likely have to contend with a China that possesses more domestic political capacity, but considerably less international soft power. Beijing has been enjoying a significant soft-power boom in the West since Donald Trump’s election, to the point where Xi Jinping has often been hailed as the defender of global order and economic liberalism. If the reaction of Western media and intellectuals over the past few weeks is any indication, the removal of presidential term-limits has destroyed many, if not all, of those soft-power gains. Trump himself may have openly admired Xi’s power grab, but as a group, American and European political elites have near-unanimously reacted to it with horror and alarm. It is now much easier to portray China as politically regressive and despotic, and therefore easier to call for mistrust and potential confrontation. The combination of rising hard power and declining soft power puts China in a position more similar to the post-1945 Soviet Union, and bodes ill for Sino-Western, especially Sino-American relationships, going forward.

Over the long run, the potentially destabilizing effects of lifelong rule present a different set of challenges. Serious Chinese political turmoil would create enormous problems for the global economy, but some countries may see it as a political opportunity to reassert control over the Asia Pacific region, or perhaps to reengage in the ideological engineering that the American establishment attempted throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The only guaranteed outcome is a period of deep geopolitical and ideological instability. Unless Xi and the Party manage to solve the succession problems discussed above, the world will have to prepare for a serious possibility of material Chinese decline, something that, by that point, it will not have dealt with for nearly a century. That would likely be an even greater challenge than coping with China’s current rise: declining great powers mired in domestic political turmoil are often more erratic geopolitical actors than rising powers—for example, the United States under the Trump Presidency—and have far greater capacity to do harm. We should all hope, perhaps against hope, that it does not come to that.