When China’s Congress convened earlier this year, President Xi Jinping of China removed constitutional term limits for the president. Many, including the New York Times, have described this action as diminishing whatever democracy was left in China and interpreted the move as an implication that Xi will serve for life. Some have criticized this apparent dramatic shift.
The move is more symbolic than it is practical, and is a mere semblance of the game-changer the media has made it out to be.
The office of President, as a government office, is mostly ceremonial, akin to the Queen of England. In China, state offices are merely a formality, as the Communist Party handles most of the governing.
As described by the BBC, the true leader of China would be called “Paramount Leader”, which is often held by the General Secretary of the Communist Party, an office without term limits. Only recently has it become commonplace for the leader of the Communist Party to hold a government title as well.
The most prominent example would be Deng Xiaoping, who was the Paramount Leader for 13 years and held only Communist Party positions. Although he never held government office, he was still the leader of China for over a decade.
Even without removing Presidential term limits, Xi Jinping could have served as China’s leader however long he wanted, as the office of President is a formality when it comes to governing China. It follows that his action had no impact on Chinese governing, but rather had a more symbolic purpose.
Prior to removing the government term limits, Xi had already indicated that he would serve more than the usual 10 years, regardless of the aforementioned limits. Earlier this year, Xi did not appoint anyone of an appropriate age to the Politburo Standing Committee, which is usually indicative of the leader’s chosen successor.
By only appointing men who would be too old to run the country at the end of his term, Xi lead many to suspect that he would seek to lead China for at least another term, if not for life. Given this action, the removal of state term limits is hardly a surprise and isn’t much of a move at all.
However, this action has a large symbolic impact. By removing government term limits, Xi is not really enacting change but is rather publicizing his strongman tactics, to demonstrate his new style of leadership to the world. Unlike the public political styles of western politicians, previous Chinese leaders have been more reserved in their leadership style. Former President Hu Jintao was especially well-known for his quiet political style, preferring policy to publicity.
This move, by showing Xi’s embrace of authoritarian impacts, indicates a potential desire to take a more active role on the world stage. Further compounded by President Donald Trump’s isolationist foreign policy, China will likely become the more globally-involved superpower, further solidifying its status as a rich and powerful nation.
As 15 percent of global GDP, the Chinese government also has a large effect on the direction of the world economy. This symbolic move is a huge step for China in terms of prominence on the world stage.
If Xi is here to stay, one will expect that his economic policy, which has resulted in overall economic growth over the duration of his tenure, will remain in place, and China’s power will continue to grow.
This move, while criticized as setting a bad example for new democracies, provides the potential for China to grow as the United States recedes from its previously dominant presence in international organizations like the UN and NATO.
Xi’s removal of state term limits has hardly any short-term effects on Chinese politics. The positions that make a difference in China have never had term limits, and the state offices that did were merely ceremonial. Rather, the symbolism of the move indicates a sharp turn towards a more active and authoritarian leadership style, which could affect the state of global politics and the world economy.