Putting Xi’s Imperial Presidency in Perspective

Publication: China Brief Volume: 18 Issue: 8

A Billboard of Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen (Source: Getty)

The removal of presidential term limits from China’s state constitution is another step along the road of authoritarian rule for China. However, most observers today seem to miss that this in no way signifies a fundamental shift in the CCP’s mode of governance [1]. Rather, Xi is part of a cycle of weaker and stronger rulers [2], with term limit removal but one among a series of measures concentrating authority under Xi. Indeed, within the ranks of China’s leadership, titles such as “president” are symbolic, and do not necessarily reflect an individual’s power. Instead, it is social standing from which power flows, and always has. As in Mao’s time, China’s leadership collective today is all too easily united behind a single strong will, a tendency which can ease decision-making in difficult times, but which has more than once led to abject ruin.

Although Xi has amassed a considerable degree of power, it is still far less than that of Deng Xiaoping, much less Mao Zedong. While the clearest manifestations of this power to date lie in the economic realm, more aggressive diplomatic and military actions are possible as well. Set against this are China’s prospects for continued growth, economic interdependence, and need to be perceived as a positive force on the international stage, all of which suggest a preference not to engage in large-scale, destructive conflict. Thus, significant room remains for the United States and others to insist that China channel its newfound confidence in positive directions.

Ghosts of Leaders Past

During the years of rule under Deng Xiaoping, China’s leadership dynamic shifted from Mao Zedong’s absolutism to “collective leadership” (集体领导). Deng placed his subordinates in the PRC’s highest political offices and allowed them to play some role in decision making, a more collaborative leadership style less prone to Mao’s calamitous errors [3]. The idea of shared power was consummated in the peaceful, almost regularized transition of power to Presidents Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi himself.

These peaceful transfers of power, however, fostered the misconception that China’s government had standardized its power sharing arrangements. Xi has dispelled that illusion. More than the leaders that preceded him, Xi illustrates that the underlying form of China’s leadership dynamic has not changed; it remains more personal than institutional.

Numerous commentators, foremost among them Deng himself, suggest that Mao Zedong’s power in the beginning flowed from the leadership’s willingness to follow him. Later on, this became a fear of not following him and finally mob terror spurred on by Mao’s cult of personality [4]. The various positions and honorifics Mao held in his lifetime represented this power but did not define it. The People’s Republic of China had no tradition or mechanism to say which positions its leader should hold or what limits that power might have. For example, Mao’s retirement from his role as head of state (国家主席, the same term used today for China’s president, although the English-speaking world invariably dubbed Mao “Chairman”) in no way diminished the potency of his personal cult during the Cultural Revolution.

Conversely, Deng made due with the simple appellation “core” (核心) of the “Chinese Communist Party’s second generation leadership collective” (中国共产党第二代领导集体) [5]. The only top position he ever held was CMC chairman, prompting use of the term “paramount leader” (最高领导人) to describe the person who runs China, regardless of their office. Thus, although in English a leadership “core” sounds as though it might refer to multiple people, the term “core” was originally synonymous with “paramount leader,” although Hu’s failure to earn the title has remade it into a mark of social standing for Xi. Conversely, Deng’s naming of his subordinates to top positions in no way changed his status as paramount leader.

For all the hope Deng generated with his Reform and Opening Up, the years after the Tiananmen Massacre made clear that he had in no way changed the fundamental principles of PRC political leadership. Although Deng otherwise obliterated Mao’s governing program, his violent suppression of protestors proved anew the CCP’s enduring adherence to Mao’s dictum that “political power proceeds from the barrel of a gun” (枪杆子里面出政权), and to solidifying its rule by restricting free expression. Indeed, by the 2000s, China had become a world leader in bloodlessly suppressing the thoughts and actions of its people.

Bending the System to Xi’s Will

Thus, Xi’s extension of his tenure, presaged by the retention of his lieutenant Wang Qishan past the customary retirement age (Voice of America, November 1 2016), is best understood as a stepwise continuation of illiberal policies and not a divergence from a program of modernization. Xi’s recognition as “core,” one of the previous steps in this process, placed him nominally above Hu whose “core” status never appeared in official print. Chinese media have suggested that Deng’s unacknowledged Party age limit never applied to “core” leaders, which helps explain Xi’s decision to make himself one (China News, February 5 2016) [6].

A recent editorial in the People’s Daily, China’s paper of record, attempts to claim that removing presidential term limits was neither intended to change the Party’s existing retirement system nor to ensconce a “leader for life” [7], citing Article 38 of the Party Constitution, which says that “leading Party cadres at all levels, whether elected through democratic procedure or appointed by a leading body, are not entitled to lifelong tenure, and can be transferred from or relieved of their posts.” (People’s Daily, March 1) [8]

However, it should be noted that, while this passage does give the Party a veto over continued service, it in no way explicitly forbids lifetime tenure. The editorial is determined to downplay the idea of indefinite tenure. Another editorial, however, makes clear the lack of true checks on Xi’s ability to rule as long as he sees fit:

In this round of soliciting opinions and base-level research, many localities, offices, and the mass of Party cadres unanimously called for amending the rule concerning term limits for the president. During the seventh plenum of the 18th Party Congress and during the 19th Party Congress, the representatives in attendance were also strongly in support. We all accept that neither the Party Charter not state Constitution make any provision limiting the service of the Party Central Committee General Secretary or [Party or state] CMC chair to two consecutive terms. Adopting the same convention for the state presidency would be advantageous for protecting Party Central Committee authority, with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core, and for the consolidation of a unified leadership, as well as for strengthening and perfecting the national leadership system. (Xinhua, March 8)

Thus, we come to the essential fault in China’s system of succession: the only check on an individual’s power comes from the collective. But as long as that collective is rewarded for loyalty, punished for defection, and temperamentally averse to rocking the boat, it is all too easy for stronger leaders like Xi to get what they want. At a meeting in preparation for the recent Party Congress, for example, he encouraged attendees to “speak out freely” (畅所欲言) (Xinhua, October 5 2017). There is, of course, robust freedom of expression when it comes to expressing support of Xi. Indeed, the idea of subordinates innovating ways to please Xi harkens back to what CPC historians have dubbed “working toward the Chairman” [9]. The Chairman, be it Mao or Xi, need only select from the menu of options offered by unctuous subordinates. Unlike Mao’s reign, however, the current leadership’s promise of economic development and the populace’s reliance on the outside world make it hard to imagine Xi remaining in charge without providing more than empty slogans.


Despite assertions that Xi’s governance has been the most restrictive since the post-Tiananmen period, in truth China’s level of democracy today is no lower than it was five years ago. Removing presidential term limits is one more measure in Xi’s program of power consolidation, but is neither a coup de grace nor a fundamental change in the governing structure. Indeed, there was nothing in the previous constitution preventing further non-consecutive presidential terms [10].

Considering Xi’s ability to bend decision makers to his will, we should by no means consider him weak, but he is no Deng and must still struggle to shore up his support. This fact is reflected in the decision of the PRC’s highly savvy propaganda apparatus to downplay the extension of presidential term limits as quickly as possible, allowing little time for debate and no space to have it in.

Xi may only have a small circle of friends he can rely on without question, but the Party as a whole has proven eager to aid his endeavors by implementing his Belt and Road Initiative, lauding him with titles like “people’s leader” and “core,” and of course abolishing presidential term limits. Although there are great risks to such power consolidation, it may not be a bad bet in the short term given Xi’s relatively even keel at this juncture. And while his main accomplishments to date have been economic and political, moves within the military and security realms may not be far behind.

In the long term, though, Xi’s need to maintain positional power would betray a lack of acceptance for his program. As the ancient Chinese political philosopher Mencius once said, “Those who feign benevolence using force are tyrants and can only have a large kingdom. The virtuous who act benevolently are true rulers, requiring no external greatness” [11]. In other words, the will of the virtuous needs no force to buttress it.

In this sense, Xi’s call for a “Community of Human Destiny” and declaration that “a country without morals cannot flourish” make clear his desire for China to appear virtuous while securing a place in the world order for China to develop peacefully for as long as it can. It is on this basis that the United States can successfully compete with Xi’s China: calling out China’s excesses as moral failings and quietly but firmly pushing back when words fail.

Ben Lowsen is China Strategist for the U.S. Air Force’s Checkmate office. He is a retired U.S. Army officer who has served previously as Assistant Army Attaché in Beijing and Asia advisor to the U.S. Navy. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


[1] For example, Salvatore Babones, “Leader For Life: Xi Jinping Strengthens Hold On Power As China Communist Party Ends Term Limits,” Forbes, February 25; Chris Buckley, “How Xi Jinping Made His Power Grab: With Stealth, Speed and Guile,” New York Times, March 7; and James Holmes, “Xi Jinping is now China’s President for Life: What Would Machiavelli Think?” The National Interest, March 4.

[2] Yan Jiaqi, “The Nature of Chinese Authoritarianism,” in Carol Lee Hamrin and Suisheng Zhao, Decision-making in Deng’s China: Perspectives from Insiders (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1995), 5.

[3] Deng Xiaoping, “On the Reform of the System of Party and State Leadership,” August 18, 1980, The Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Modern Day Contributions to Marxism-Leninism; Alice Miller, “The Succession of Hu Jintao,” China Leadership Monitor, No.1 Part 2, January 2002; see also Cai Haoxiang, “七上八下是什么?[What is 7-Up 8-Down?]” China Times, October 19, 2017.

[4]  Deng Xiaoping; see also, for example, Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990).

[5] Cui Chenguang, Zhao Jing, eds/, “邓小平生平简介 [Synopsis of Deng Xiaoping’s Life],” People’s Daily, July 12, 2004.

[6] “胡锦涛未获 ‘核心’ 称号暗藏巨大秘密 [The Mystery of Why Hu Jintao Never Earned the Title of ‘Core’], Liao Wang / China News, February 5, 2016; also Alice Miller.

[7] Xuan Li (pseudonym), “保证党和国家长治久安的重大制度安排 [Ensuring the Great Systemic Organization of Lasting Party and State Rule],” People’s Daily, March 1.

[8] Flora Sapio, “General Program and Constitution of the Communist Party of China (Table of Amendments),” Coalition for Peace and Ethics, 2017.

[9] Roderick MacFarquhar, Michael Schoenhals, “Mao’s Last Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[10] “Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (Adopted on December 4, 1982),” People’s Daily.

[11] Mencius, Gong Sun Chou I, verse 3.