When Xinhua announced that the Chinese Communist Party will recommend amending China’s constitution to remove the reference to presidential and vice presidential term limits, the move came as a surprise to most China watchers. That was not because President Xi Jinping’s ambition to remain in power for longer than the customary 10 years was a secret – there have been rumors to that effect almost since Xi first assumed power in 2012 – but because it was not expected that Xi would make his intentions so crystal clear. The writing has been on the wall for some time (for more on that point, see David Gitter’s outline of the moves that preceded this announcement), but there was always a veneer of plausible deniability. No more; there’s simply no reason to amend the constitution if Xi doesn’t intend to break the two-term limit.
However, largely lost in the round of analysis looking at what this means for the rule of law in China, and even the future of the CCP, is a deceptively simple question: why bother?
Xi’s power ultimately does not stem from his title as president of the People’s Republic of China, a point that is obvious but not always spelled out. Rather, Xi’s power comes from his position as general secretary of the CCP – and, notably, there are no formal term limits on this position. As Richard McGregor pointed out in his analysis for The Interpreter, “Xi’s current term as party secretary lasts until late 2022, and there are no formal impediments to him staying for longer.” The norms that would have him step down in 2022, after 10 years in power, are unwritten – and thus easier to scrap than the presidential term limits written into China’s constitution. So if Xi could keep the more powerful position, why not spare himself the trouble of actually amending the constitution – and thereby garnering backlash at home and abroad – by simply allowing a figurehead to occupy the presidency?
Xi would have been in good company to do just that. Modern Chinese history has proven that formal titles are not a particularly good indicator of who actually holds power. Deng Xiaoping, who was unquestionably China’s top leader through the 1980s and part of the 90s, never held the title of president or CCP general secretary. No one would suggest that Presidents Li Xiannian (1983-1988) or Yang Shangku (1988-1993) had anything approaching Deng’s clout during their respective tenures.
Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, took up the presidency in 1993 and passed it on to Hu Jintao in March 2003. Jiang had given up the CCP secretary title to Hu four months earlier, in late 2002. Yet despite holding neither of those titles, Jiang continued to wield power behind the scenes. In particular, he held on to the position of chairman of the CCP’s Central Military Commission until September 2004 (incidentally, this chairmanship was also the most high-profile position Deng himself filled during the peak of his leadership).
Viewed from this perspective, Hu Jintao is the only leader in the history of the People’s Republic of China to have actually ceded power after 10 years of holding formal office. So much for institutional norms.
With such a well-trod path before him to retain power with minimal bureaucratic fuss, then, why would Xi make the effort necessary to hold on to the presidency, a title that time and again has proven nearly meaningless in Chinese politics?
Some have suggested that Xi might be uneasy about his ability to wield influence from behind the curtain – that a formal retirement could put him in political jeopardy. This seems unlikely. It’s hard to imagine that Xi would face much of a political threat from a figurehead president, particularly if Xi himself kept the CCP secretary post. In fact, even if he handed over both those titles, it’s nearly impossible to imagine any political harm befalling Xi. Now that his “Xi Jinping Thought” has been written into the CCP Constitution, if would be incredibly embarrassing (and damaging) for the Party to ever turn its back on him. To do so would raise uncomfortable questions as to whether “Mao Zedong Thought” is similarly open to debate based on the political winds.
As Bill Bishop, longtime China watcher and author of the Sinocism China Newsletter, put it in his recap of the 19th Party Congress:
The enshrinement signals that it is Xi’s Party and makes the question of succession while Xi is alive a moot issue. So long as Xi has not yet met Marx he is the man with an eponymous theory in the Party Constitution, which means no other official will have more authority than he does, regardless of whether Xi is Party Chairman, General Secretary, Central Military Commission Chairman or head of the China Go Association.
If there’s no convincing domestic political reason for Xi to push to retain the presidency, I would argue the impetus comes from diplomatic considerations. China’s president may not hold actual power, but he is the formal face of China to the external world – and in Xi’s self-proclaimed “new era,” where China is seeking an ever-more prominent global role, that means the presidency is increasingly important from a foreign policy standpoint.
The last time a Chinese president forfeited his title but not his power was in 2003, when Jiang Zemin was replaced by Hu Jintao. Since then, China’s involvement on the world stage has markedly increased – as has the visibility and importance of the president. Today, China’s president represents the country at a plethora of annual summits – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), BRICS, and G20 meetings, to name just a few – as well as an even larger number of less frequent political dialogues, such as this year’s edition of the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit. China’s participation in these international platforms was either nonexistent or in its infancy when Jiang ceded the presidency. China’s increased global role has increased the prestige of the presidency – apparently to the point that giving it up is no longer a palatable choice for Xi.
It’s entirely feasible that Xi could hand over the presidency and still control the general shape of China’s foreign policy (particularly since he would have firm control over the military). But there is a cost to not being the public face of China at international meetings – someone else gives the speeches, and (more importantly) someone else rubs elbows with the other heads of state. And if an ex-President Xi pushed to attend these summits himself, perhaps in his capacity general secretary of the CCP, it would make for some awkward protocol. It would also undermine the fiction China likes to promote abroad that the presidency, a more “normal” political title, is the country’s most important post (in official English-language media, for example, Xi is “President Xi,” not “Chairman Xi” or “Secretary Xi” as he is in the Chinese-language reports).
Xi might have learned from his good friend Vladimir Putin in this regard – an autocrat can wield power without holding on to the title of president, but things are simpler, particularly on the foreign policy front, when the same man has the clout and the namecard to go with it.