It took Xinhua, the official news agency of China, only 36 words to send a chill down the spines of millions of people, in China and elsewhere: an announcement that the Communist Party will toss away the nation’s 35-year-old limit that its president and vice president may serve only two terms. It almost certainly means that President Xi Jinping, 64, plans to remain in power for the rest of his life.
“China does not need another Mao, but it’s going to get one anyway,” Gordon Chang, a noted China analyst and a Daily Beast columnist, told me. “God help us all, Chinese and others.”
Chang reminded me that after Mao Zedong’s bloody and ruthless 27 years of one-man rule, which ended with his death in 1976, reformers vowed not to take chances that one person could monopolize power again. Deng Xiaoping and other survivors of the Cultural Revolution, including the father of Xi Jinping, sought to limit arbitrary power. They set a limit of two five-year terms on the presidency and vice presidency, and safeguards to ensure that major decisions would be made by a collective leadership.
Since he first took office, Xi has consistently worked to centralize his authority. Anti-corruption campaigns have carefully targeted political rivals and driven them out of office. He has waived informal retirement-age requirements so that Wang Qishan, his right-hand man, can stay in office. Xi’s portrait hangs everywhere in the country, in a clear effort to create a cult of personality. Along with putting an end to term limits, the 205-member Central Committee of the Communist Party has also announced that it will insert “Xi Jingping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” a 14-point basic policy plan, into the nation’s constitution. It’s as if President Trump tried to add the tenets of The Art of the Deal to our governing document.
All of this amounts to a slow-motion coup against the safeguards that Communist reformers set up in the 1980s. When, in October 2017, CNN asked Jeff Wasserstrom, a China analyst at the University of California, to name the five most powerful people in China, he replied: “Xi, Xi, Xi, Xi, and Xi.”
We’ve seen this movie before. The first thing that power-mad or power-hungry leaders want to do is eliminate any term limits that circumscribe their power. When Vladimir Putin took over as president of Russia in 2000, it appeared he would be hemmed in by the ruling of the post-Communist constitution that no one could serve more than two terms. But Putin blithely circumvented this rule in 2008 by having his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, run for president while he himself moved over to the prime minister’s office and kept a close hold on power. Putin returned as president in 2012.
Putin is now running for an extended six-year term in “elections” next month. But no one expects him to abide by the rule that he will have to leave office. “I am absolutely convinced that Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] will not cede power in 2024 either,” Alexei Venediktov, editor of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, wrote on the messaging service Telegram in November. “That means . . . it’s necessary to change the configuration of power and transfer the main power to an institution other than the presidential post.”
The Financial Times reports that one way to accomplish that would be to make the State Council, an advisory body to President Putin, into the main governing power. Then Putin could become chairman of the State Council, thus technically not violating the term limit. “The presidency could continue to exist as a ceremonial head of state position, or be abolished altogether,” a source close to the Kremlin told the Financial Times in December. “You could also call it the Putin forever model.”
Disposing of term limits has always been a priority for politicians who see themselves as indispensable to their country’s future. In 2009, Hugo Chávez pushed through a measure abolishing term limits. Venezuela’s decline really began accelerating after that. In Nicaragua and Bolivia, left-wing leaders have had hand-picked courts declare existing term limits unconstitutional. In the U.S., career politicians from Nancy Pelosi in California to city-council members in New York have tried to undermine local term limits. To their credit, some politicians have noted that those limits were established by the vote of the people. Even New York mayor Bill de Blasio attacked any attempt to water them down. “The people have spoken,” he told the New York Daily News in November. “It couldn’t be clearer. People believe in term limits. I believe in term limits.”
The gulf between incumbent officeholders and the people they are meant to serve is never bigger than on the issue of term limits — fully 82 percent of Americans support a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on Congress.
So does the vast majority of the American people. The gulf between incumbent officeholders and the people they are meant to serve is never bigger than on the issue of term limits. In a McLaughlin & Associates poll taken this month, fully 82 percent of Americans support a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on Congress — limits like those that bind the president and 37 of the nation’s 50 governors.
The odds that Congress would approve such an amendment are, of course, very slim, and then two-thirds of the states would have to ratify it — probably a slow process. That makes it all the more important that Americans fight for and retain term limits on other offices when they come under attack.
We still live in a largely free country, unlike people in China and Russia. But the impulse to abuse power exists in the U.S. as well. While we should worry about what that abuse in other nations can mean for us, we should also remember we have an ongoing job here at home to limit the insatiable urge of incumbents to remain in office for years, even decades, and sometimes until they die of ripe old age.