‘Emperor Xi’ and the great Chinese power grab

All-powerful: “Some people might call him the king of China”, Donald Trump said of Xi Jinping.

Should we be worried about Xi Jinping? The Chinese president is abolishing term limits, potentially making him leader-for-life. But to some, this is a comforting sign of stability.

China’s parliament — the National People’s Congress — has started its most significant meeting in a generation, preparing to offer President Xi Jinping a lifetime mandate to mould the country in his vision.

The country’s governing Communist Party has proposed removing a clause in the constitution which limits presidencies to two five-year terms. The move would allow Xi, already known as the “Chairman of everything”, to remain as leader after he is due to step down in 2023.

This power grab comes as little surprise. At the party’s congress last year, Xi’s ideology was enshrined in the party's constitution, and in a break with convention, no obvious successor was unveiled. As The Times’s leader put it, “a prime strategic challenger to the West appears to be hurtling towards unassailable autocratic rule”.

Unlike Russia, Turkey or other headline-grabbing dictatorships, China does not even pretend to be a democracy. There are no major opposition parties, no general elections and there is no campaigning.

Instead, China is run rather like a big company. Xi is the CEO. The Politburo, comprised of seven men all in their 60s, is the board of directors. Ordinary Chinese people cannot vote these men out.

And so, shorn of the need to appeal to the electorate every few years, China’s leadership can afford to think long-term. Xi’s strategy aims to guide China through to 2050, by which time it should have completed its final goal of becoming a true superpower.

The rise of China has shattered the Cold War-era distinctions between East and West. Then, the democracies were wealthy and the dictatorships grey and poor. The Dalai Lama once said: “China has to go along with world trends. That’s democracy, liberty, individual freedom.”

But China has proved it is possible to be rich without being free or democratic. The country’s Confucian-inspired respect for hierarchy has prevailed, ensuring that China’s long history of autocracy continues well into the 21st century.

Is the West overly obsessed with liberal democracy?

Unleash the dragon

We could learn from China, say some. A lack of long-term thinking, which democracy makes difficult, has led to the rise of populism in democratic countries. And term limits are a bad idea anyway. As David Alpert writes in The Washington Post, no hospital would ever “fire all the doctors and nurses with nine to 12 years of experience”.

Keep the faith, reply others. Democracy functions like a free marketplace: competition improves the policies. China is held back by its authoritarianism: its press, for example, is feeble in exposing corruption and inefficiency. Dictatorships always end violently, while democracy allows for peaceful change.

You Decide

  1. Is democracy overrated?
  2. Should we be excited or fearful about the rise of China?


  1. Class debate: “This house would introduce term limits for every elected politician.”
  2. Pick a democracy, and write 500 words on whether you think democracy is currently succeeding in that country.

Some People Say...

“Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.”

Winston Churchill

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Chinese legislature is set to remove any term limits for President Xi Jinping at the “two meetings”. This term refers to the annual sessions of the national or local People’s Congress and the national or local committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. We know that Xi has concentrated on fighting corruption and improving China’s standing in the world since gaining power in 2012.
What do we not know?
Whether China will be a dictatorship forever. Nearby countries such as Japan, South Korea and Thailand all share some cultural similarities with China, but all have managed to make the transition to democracy. We also do not know how successful Xi will be at achieving his goals.

Word Watch

Two five-year terms
This is similar to the United States, where presidents may only serve two four-year terms in office.
Xi’s ideology
Xi divides China’s history since 1949 in two parts: first came Chairman Mao, who made China independent. Then came Deng Xiaoping, who made China prosperous. Now Xi wants to make China strong. He has already aimed to position China as a global leader on trade and the fight against climate change.
No obvious successor was unveiled
This was the custom for 25 years. One of the favourites for the next leader is Chen Min’er, known as Xi’s protégé, but he was not promoted to the Politburo.
A portmanteau of the term “political bureau”, a politburo is the executive committee for Communist parties.
Confucius was a Chinese philosopher who lived in the from 551BC to 479BC. His philosophy, known as Confucianism, emphasises personal morality, loyalty to family and respect for elders and traditions.

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