In March, China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress (NPC), approved a constitutional amendment removing presidential term limits and re-elected Xi Jinping for his second term as president. Previously, the constitution had stipulated that a president could serve a maximum of two consecutive five-year terms. The new amendment does not do away with presidential elections, but makes Xi eligible for re-election after the completion of his second five-year term in 2023.
Since this amendment was proposed in February, it has generated a predictably feverish response in the West. The near unanimous representation of the story by Western media outlets and experts has characterized the amendment as a “dictatorial” power grab of Chinese President Xi seeking to “rule for life” and obtain “world power for himself and China.”
Honest Assessment or Double Standards?
While China’s removal of term limits has led to Xi being called an “emperor” and “dictator” who “shatters hopes of democracy in China,” the same standard is not applied to the West and its allies. There are no term limits for heads of state in Britain, Germany, Canada, Italy, Denmark, Spain, Sweden or the Netherlands, nor are there any in allied countries like Japan and India. Leaders of these countries are never described as “dictators” or “authoritarian,” even when they remain in office for lengthy periods of time. In fact, German Chancellor Angela Merkel — who is beginning her fourth term and 13th year in office — is regularly described as “leader of the free world” (see, here, here and here). Even more striking is the media representation of the notoriously repressive Western-allied Saudi monarchy. Over the past year, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has regularly been praised in prominent Western corporate media outlets as a “revolutionary,” ushering in a transformative “Arab Spring” in the Gulf Kingdom.
It is clear then that the issue is not whether a state has term limits or is a “liberal democracy,” but whether a state is aligned with the interests of the US and West. Those who are can do as they please. Those, like China, who pursue an independent path, will be relentlessly criticized with no regard for dishonesty or hypocrisy.
In the US, presidents are limited to a maximum of two terms in office, but even though the names in the White House change, the policies largely remain the same.
This sensationalism over China’s removal of term limits is part of a broader trend within the corporate-owned media. On a near daily basis, Westerners are bombarded with sensational headlines about China, being told that the country “has a plan to rule the world,” its ” ‘long arm’ of influence stretches ever further,” its “fingerprints are everywhere” as it “infiltrates” Western institutions.
The media’s hawkishness echoes growing Western hostility toward China — in particular, from a declining US empire which feels threatened by China’s rise. The Trump administration is escalating the China “containment” strategy initiated with Obama’s “Asia pivot,” and has repeatedly identified the “threat” posed by the “economic and military ascendance” of China and declared that “[i]nter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” Washington is increasing military and economic pressure on Beijing by ratcheting up tensions on the Korean peninsula, taking steps to construct a “quadrilateral” alliance with India, Japan and Australia, and instigating a potential “trade war.”
The US is in the midst of a long decline, which has been accentuated during the Trump era as its international reputation plummets. At the same time, however, China faces increasing hostility and unpredictability from Washington, which seeks to “contain” the rising power and retain its global dominance.
What’s Actually Going On in China?
Beyond the politically motivated sensationalism, what should we make of China’s decision to remove presidential term limits? Do term limits even provide any real safeguard for democracy? In the US, for example, presidents are limited to a maximum of two terms in office, but even though the names in the White House change, the policies largely remain the same. The interests of the 1%, corporations and empire are consistently advanced at the expense of working class, poor and marginalized communities.
While dominant Western narratives reduce the political dynamics in designated pariah states like China to egoistic, “authoritarian” power grabs, examining China’s political system indicates otherwise. Top political leadership in China is vested in three positions: general secretary of the Communist Party, central military commission chair and the president. The highest-ranking political official is the general secretary, who generally also serves as central military commission chair (similar to how US presidents serve as commander-in-chief), whereas the presidency holds less substantive authority. Elected at Communist Party congresses, the general secretary serves five-year terms and the position does not have a term limit for re-election. This undermines the narrative that the removal of presidential term limits is a “power grab,” since prior to the amendment, Xi was already eligible for re-election as general secretary beyond his second term regardless of whether he was president.
The removal of term limits does indicate that the Communist Party is re-electing Xi as leader after his second term is complete in 2023. According to the spokesperson of the National People’s Congress, “the removal of the two-term restriction is conducive to safeguarding the authority and the centralized and unified leadership of the Communist Party of China.”
The coming decades will be a significant period as China is generally expected to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy and the country aims to achieve basic modernization. Given the growing hostility China faces from Washington, and US imperialism’s track record of destructive destabilization and “regime change” interventions against those who defy its authority, there is merit to Beijing’s concern for stability. Particularly so, given the grave threat China’s rise poses to US international authority.
Progressives Should Reject the Western Sensationalism Toward China
Regardless of one’s opinion of the Communist Party of China, it must be recognized that it is genuinely pursuing a social, political and economic project, as opposed to mere “power grabs” by individual leaders. The party has led a successful program of national development — far more so than most nations across the Global South. At the time of China’s socialist revolution in 1949, the country was severely impoverished after over a century of foreign domination and average life expectancy was a mere 35 years. Today, China is a world power and has lifted over 800 million people out of poverty in the last four decades alone — more than the rest of the world combined.
During Xi’s tenure, China has taken steps to transition to “higher quality” development and respond to the serious problems associated with its rapid growth, namely inequality, environmental degradation and corruption: on track to eradicate poverty by 2020 with income inequality falling in recent years; becoming “a world leader in wind, solar, nuclear, and nuclear and electric vehicles”; praised by Greenpeace for cutting pollution in the country’s most populated areas by an average of 32 percent since declaring a “war on pollution” in 2013; and launching an anti-corruption campaign which has disciplined 1.34 million government officials since 2013.
This agenda appears to be popular amongst the Chinese people. International polls conducted in the past year by Western research centers indicate that China leads the world in optimism and trust in government, with 87 percent of Chinese people feeling their country is headed in the right direction and 84 percent trusting their government.
In spite of this, Western political establishments consider nearly everything China does to be insidious, regressive or a “threat.” The corporate media response to the removal of presidential term limits is just the latest example. The logic is clear: if it’s China, it’s bad — the issues themselves are largely irrelevant. This hostility and bias is a reflection of the US and West’s anxiety about China’s rise and the challenge it poses to their long-held global dominance.
China does have a distinctly different system from Western liberal political orders, but that is not reason enough to dismiss it. While China is not a perfect country and faces a number of serious problems and challenges, progressive-minded people in the West should reject the sensationalism and hawkishness of their political establishments and work toward honest engagement with this country.