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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Few surprises as China allows indefinite Xi rule

At a time of such flux, a vote for continuity is perhaps not the worst thing, despite the precedent it sets

China's parliament has voted to abolish presidential term limits, clearing the path for President Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely. Etienne Oliveau / Getty
China's parliament has voted to abolish presidential term limits, clearing the path for President Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely. Etienne Oliveau / Getty

The decision by Chinese lawmakers to abolish the two-term presidential limit, paving the way for Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely, is of little surprise. So too is the near unanimity with which the decision passed through the National People’s Congress. Just two of the nearly 3,000 delegates voted against the change, with three abstentions and one spoilt ballot. Those expressing genuine surprise cannot have not been closely following Chinese politics; at the Communist Party Congress last October, Mr Xi deviated from tradition when he failed to name a successor, before the party voted to enshrine his name and ideology in the constitution. He now sits on equal footing with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping in the hierarchy of Chinese leaders. Despite the backlash yesterday’s decision has caused, it has been a long time coming.

It will not spark the crisis some have predicted. While the two-term rule is less than two decades old, it is the general secretary of the Communist party, not the president, who dominates Chinese politics, setting policy and controlling the military. That position, which has no term limits, is already held by Mr Xi, who is simply aligning the presidency with his party responsibilities. Nor does it necessarily mean that he will rule into his old age, despite the fact that critics in China and elsewhere suggest the move sets a dangerous precedent.

It does, however, afford modern leadership’s most precious commodity to Mr Xi: time. But leadership is strenuous, and particularly so in a nation as vast and powerful as China. There are numerous examples – particularly in Africa, where China is ramping up its economic interests – of leaders who over-extended their tenures and fossilised in power. Mr Xi certainly has plenty on his agenda. He is pursuing the One Belt, One Road initiative, a colossal trading network marking the next stage of China’s growth story. He is closely monitoring the neighbouring tinderbox of North Korea. Elsewhere, Mr Xi is asserting Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, readying for a potential Sino-US trade war and supervising an anti-corruption drive that has already punished a million party members. At a time of such flux, a vote for continuity is perhaps not the worst thing.