One of the most important jobs of any national leader is to quit. It’s almost as important as actually leading. National liberation heroes, from George Washington to Nelson Mandela, who stepped down without being forced to, ought to be venerated for that as much as for any good they accomplished while in office. Generally, rulers do not give up power unless they have to. In Africa, peaceful transfers of power are rare enough that a billionaire has set up a generous annual prize to reward leaders who step down voluntarily; many years it goes unclaimed. Around the world, cases like Bashar al-Assad, willing to watch his country crumble rather than give up power over it, or Robert Mugabe, forced out by his own military after 47 years, are more common.
This is an inherent weakness in authoritarian political systems. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a leader who knows what he’s doing and has the genuine support of the population, chances are very high that he will either stay in power far too long or be succeeded by someone much worse. Moreover, in the absence of democratic norms allowing for peaceful and predictable transfers of power, competition for leadership often takes the form on intra-elite plotting with unpredictable and often violent consequences. Citizens are often drawn to authoritarian government by the promise of order and stability, but the stability only lasts until the leader’s rivals sense weakness.
China, at least for the last three decades, seemed to be an exception, the country that had cracked the code of authoritarian succession. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, reformist Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, looking to avoid the chaos and intra-party power struggles of the Mao Zedong era, pushed to institutionalize the ruling Communist Party’s succession system. Since Deng formally stepped down in 1992, power has passed to three leaders—Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping—with little public drama and the identity of the successors known years in advance. Similarly, members of the party’s highest body, the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, have generally served for 10-year terms. The minimum age to begin a term, 50, and maximum age, 68, serve as an effective term limit.
The effect has been two and a half decades of leadership by successive generations of mostly dull, middle-age men who have shepherded the world’s largest country through one of the most rapid and incredible economic transformations in human history.
Now, however, the Communist Party has thrown things for a loop. It has announced the abolition of term limits for the presidency, paving the way for 64-year-old Xi to stay in power after his current term ends in 2023. He is also putting his personal stamp on the country by adding his official ideology, known as “Xi Jinping thought,” to the country’s Constitution.
It was added to the party constitution last year.
Evidence that Xi was consolidating power and building something of a personality cult has been abundant for a while. And particularly after he declined to promote anyone young enough to succeed him to the Politburo Standing Committee last year, there was already rampant speculation that Xi didn’t plan to exit the scene in 2023. The most common theory had been that Xi would remain on as chairman of the party, a position that doesn’t have an official term limit, while anointing a figurehead to replace him as president. (The two positions have been linked together since the 1990s but could theoretically be held by different people.) Abolishing the presidential term limits altogether suggests that the norms put in place by Deng have been scrapped.
In fairness, China’s succession system was never quite as well established as it appeared. Deng played a part in selecting both Jiang as well as his successor Hu, meaning that Xi is in fact the first Chinese leader not blessed by one of China’s founding fathers. In addition, Deng and, to a lesser extent, Jiang both retained significant power after formally leaving office, forcing their successors to struggle for legitimacy. Hu’s 2012 full handover of power to Xi now looks more like the exception than the norm.
The country’s state media has defended the change as a means to maintain “stable, strong and consistent leadership” during a time of rapid global change and domestic modernization. And in the short-term, Xi might have a new mandate to carry out ambitious goals including projecting Chinese military power in the South China Sea and expanding economic influence abroad through his signature “One Belt One Road” initiative. But in the long term, past precedents suggest the move doesn’t bode well for political stability. Without a rules-based system for succession, other elites will be more likely to take extraordinary means to seize power. For the moment, Xi is enormously popular and his vast corruption purges have eliminated most of his potential rivals, but that might not last.
The change could have an impact beyond China as well. As a result of China’s growing economic clout, it is increasingly setting the political agenda in many parts of the world, with its stable authoritarian model providing an enticing alternative to Western-style democracy (all the more attractive now given the state of affairs in many Western democracies). Budding presidents-for-life throughout the developing world could very well take their cues from Beijing. For that matter, given the current U.S. president’s past seemingly envious remarks about Xi’s growing power, it may not just be the developing world we should worry about.