top of page

China Abolishes Presidential Term Limits 


What Happened?


Xi Jinping occupies three governmental roles; Chairman of the Chinese Military Commission, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President of The People’s Republic of China. The latter is the most ceremonial of the three roles. Real power rests in the military and the party, however a two term limit for presidents (of 5 years each term) is used to check power more generally. A resigning president has historically resigned his other posts shortly after. [15]


On Sunday 25th of February 2018, China’s official news agency Xinhua released an un-ceremonial 36 word statement stating that the Central Committee had proposed to remove the words “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms” from the constitution. On the same day Xinhua also announced a proposal to write a doctrine named “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” into the constitution. [2]


On February 26th, Li Datong, a former newspaper editor wrote an open letter imploring delegates to vote against the measure. [6] Meanwhile delegates around China said the proposal had wide support [14].


On Sunday 11th March 2018 this proposal was passed. 3000 members of the National People’s Congress voted on the proposal, 2970 in favour, with three abstentions and two opposed. The same proposal also appointed Wang Qishan (69) as vice-president. [2] The vote, somewhat appropriately, took place in the a Mao-era theatre next to Tiananmen Square, called The Great Hall of the People.


Context: Mao, Deng, Xi


Chairman Mao ruled China from 1949 and 1976, dying in office at the age of 82. His one-time comrade (who had been purged by Mao twice) Deng Xiaoping became his successor, and tried to ensure that a tight concentration of power was avoided in future; fixed terms of office, fixed term limits and a mandatory retirement age all came into effect. Regular meetings of the State Council began again, as did meetings of the Politburo and other CCP institutions. [9]


These reforms have been honoured. Deng Xiaoping retired informally in 1989. In 2002 - 4 Jian Zemin, his successor, voluntarily retired from the post of general secretary, president and military chief. In 2012-3 Hu Jintao did the same. [9]


Xi Jinping’s decision not to appoint a successor in 2017, and then to abolish term limits in March, 2018, signals a return back to Mao-era politics which celebrates strong personal leadership and centralised power. He has wrested control over the economy back from the civil servants of the state, using the party to administrate the economy directly. Xi chairs eight of the leading small groups (committees), including the National Security Commission. In 2017 the Party Congress declared with delight that “East-West North-South the Party is leading everything”.[9] 


Often quoted is the line “Under Mao the chinese people stood up, under Deng the Chinese people got rich, and under Xi the Chinese people are becoming stronger” [9].


Immediate Reaction in China


The Chinese intelligentsia are reportedly anxious about the abolition, seeing shades of Mao in the way Xi has centralised power. [1] In Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, Cary Huang warned that hostility and division could risk pushing China back into the tragedies of the Mao era. Li Datong has said “This could destroy China and the Chinese people”. [5] He challenged why there had been no referendum and why so many delegates simply agreed “like puppets”. Joshua Wong, the leader of democracy efforts in Hong Kong, announced “the era of Emperor Xi”.[7]


On the other hand, Chinese delegates who voted for the proposal claimed that strong leadership was needed in order to continue the aggressive development which Xi has overseen in recent years. [5]


Immediate Reaction Elsewhere


The news was covered globally; The Namibian Sun, the Lebanon Daily MIrror, Daily Times Pakistan, Sunday Guardian India, Irish Times, Korea Times, Daily Nation Kenya, Business Times Singapore…etc.


The first reaction was surprise, even from experts such as Jude Blanchette (Conference Board Research Group), “…I just thought it was way too aggressive and bold a move…”[3] Similarities between Putin and Xi were quickly drawn by many, including Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism Newsletter, who called it “Putin-Plus”.[8] Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested this could backfire, “Xi is now responsible for the economy, natural disasters, anything that happens to the country”. For human rights the outlook is “very bleak”. [8]


Some have been much less critical, citing Xi’s history as an anti-corruption pragmatist rather than a Mao-style ideologue. Jim O Neill, former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, has argued that if growth stays high, much will be forgiven [11]. Other sources agree. A-typical of this outlook was Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror, which said that Xi could not be compared to a dictator like Mao or Saddam Hussein. [12]


A Geopolitical Snapshot


The turn back to strongman rule confounds the projected future of a communist country. Usually open markets and decentralised rule has led to more of the same, and an identity crisis within a one party state. [9]


As a result, many believe the abolition of term limits makes conflict with the US more likely. Since Nixon, successive US presidents have engaged with China, thinking that trade and communication will encourage the country to open up. Trump’s recently touted trade war flies in the face of this tradition as do Xi’s abolition of term limits. Two aggressive super powers, both dependent on trade, who are wary of engagement, could provoke conflict. [18]


For Hong Kong and Taiwan, the news reaffirms old anxieties. Any hope for a change in position on either topic has vanished along with term limits. Experts see Hong Kong in time becoming ‘just another Chinese city’, though there is little cause for dramatic action such as a military conflict. A proposal is currently being debated which will force Hong Kong children to learn the Chines national anthem [17] . For Taiwan a confrontation seems more likely given Xi’s centralised power, as Unification is a key aspect of his goal of ‘national rejuvenation' [10]. 


As for Tibet, the Dalai Lama has recently suggested that the region could live inside china, in a similar arrangement to the EU. [16]


In countries in the grip of quasi-democratic leadership, the news was greeted coldly. Kenya’s Daily Nation wondered whether Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto (who have both been accused of crimes by the ICC) might be tempted to try something similar. [13]






















bottom of page