8 May 2018

The West Is Wrong About China’s President


In the West, government accountability is closely identified with democratic elections. In China, it is a function of how – and how well – the government responds to and protects the needs and interests of the people. China’s recent constitutional amendment eliminating the term limits for the president and vice president has left much of the West aghast. Critics fear the emergence of a new and unaccountable dictatorship, with President Xi Jinping becoming “Chairman Mao 2.0.” This response is more than a little inappropriate. Long tenures are not exactly unheard of in the West. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has just begun her fourth four-year term – a development that the rest of Europe has largely welcomed rather than criticized.

Of course, a Westerner might argue that Merkel has an electoral mandate, whereas Xi does not. But democratic elections are not the only way to achieve accountability. And Xi’s approval rating, according to almost all international surveys, seems to exceed the combined approval ratings of US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Theresa May. While there may be reason to worry that Chinese politics could change for the worse, the same is true in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Term limits are little more than an arbitrary constraint, which are not needed to ensure competent and responsive government in China. In fact, term limits could do just the opposite, cutting short the tenure of effective leaders, leading to policy disruptions, or even leading to political chaos.

The US has long recognized this. Alexander Hamilton wrote that it is necessary to give leaders “the inclination and the resolution” to do the best possible job. They can thus prove their merits to the people, who can choose to “prolong the utility of [their leaders’] talents and virtues, and to secure to the government the advantage of permanency in a wise system of administration.”

In 1947, however, following President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election to four terms in office, Congress enacted the Twenty-Second Amendment to the US Constitution; since its ratification in 1951, US presidents have been limited to two four-year terms. The idea was to make a virtue of inexperience. But most new presidents make significant blunders at the start, and now there are more starts. If the US had no term limits, Trump might well not be in office today.

To be sure, term limits have their value. Deng Xiaoping added them to the Chinese constitution after the Cultural Revolution, in order to prevent the recurrence of chaotic and brutal one-man rule. But the new generation of Chinese leaders is not just well-educated, but also well aware of international norms and standards. Unlike the ideological diehards of the past, they can be expected to behave rationally, intelligently, and responsibly.

In this context, the removal of term limits will enable Xi to sustain a complex reform process that will take years to complete. It will not make him president for life, nor deliver him unbridled and undivided power.

Western critics emphasize that Xi has done much to concentrate power in his own hands over the last six years. And, to some extent, that is true. For example, he has taken over some of the economic policy decisions that used to be the prime minister’s domain.

But a strong leader is not necessarily an autocratic leader. And, in a high-stakes environment, a strong leader is needed to neutralize vested interests that resist crucial reforms. Xi knows the obstacles that blocked the implementation of his initiatives during his first term, and he is committed to overcoming them.

In any case, the situation is hardly a “one-man show,” as much foreign commentary suggests. Half of the members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s supreme government body, are not of Xi’s choosing. And compromises were made in the placement of many senior officials, including key cabinet members.

It would be a mistake to assume that because China has vowed not to copy the Western political model, there are not hidden democratic processes at work. While leaders are not elected, either directly or by a representative body, their performance is subject to close scrutiny – for example, by the National People’s Congress (NPC) and local people’s congresses. The Chinese government is also unusually responsive to citizens on social media.

Moreover, checks and balances, though still inadequate, have been strengthened in recent years. Policy changes require consensus within the Politburo, especially the Standing Committee. On major issues, the NPC must give the green light. Nothing stops deputies from casting a dissenting vote, thanks in part to the growing prevalence of secret ballots. A small but significant feature of this year’s Congress is the elimination of the electronic voting system; instead, officials will drop paper slips into a ballot box.

This is not the first time that Western media have adopted a perspective on Chinese political developments that runs completely counter to the prevailing view in China itself. Over the last few years, Xi’s anti-corruption drive has raised many eyebrows in the West, where it is often regarded as just a means for Xi to remove would-be political rivals. But the almost two million officials who have been indicted surely weren’t all Xi’s opponents. Among Chinese, the effort to root out corruption has boosted respect and support for Xi.

In the West, government accountability is closely identified with democratic elections. In China, it is a function of how – and how well – the government responds to and protects the needs and interests of the people. Given the sheer complexity of modern China – not to mention the paramount need for the government to continue the country’s progress toward high-income status – success may require leaders to stay in place longer than initially expected. But, if recent history is any guide, the recent changes will contribute to making China’s political and economic system increasingly stable – without undermining accountability.

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