The Implications of Xi Jinping’s Power Grab

Jens Thomsen

Vol. 39 Associate Editor

On February 25, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) moved to abolish the constitutional term limit on the presidency, clearing the way for Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely as he nears the end of his first five-year term as president.[1] The proposed amendment to the constitution must be approved by China’s CCP-controlled parliament, but this approval is expected to be a formality.[2] In addition to the removal of term limits, Xi Jinping Thought, a catchall term for Xi’s doctrines focused on strengthening the nation, the CCP, and Xi himself, will be enshrined in the preamble of China’s Constitution.[3] The effect of these changes will be a move away from collectivism toward a consolidation of power in a single leader not seen in China since the reign of Mao.[4]

This consolidation of power has raised obvious concerns for advocates of the liberalization of China. It’s nearly impossible to gauge public opinion of Xi’s power grab due to pervasive censorship and the nonexistence of public polling on sensitive issues. However, in rare displays of public dissent, a prominent businesswoman, Wang Ying, and a political commentator, Li Datong, posted open letters to WeChat, a popular social media app in China.[5] Wang expressed her opinion that the proposal to remove term limits was “against the tides” and “an outright betrayal.”[6] Xi is bucking a trend set by Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, all of whom served two terms as president before retiring or otherwise reducing their role in government. Li, speaking to the Associated Press, asserted that without term limits, China would be “returning to an imperial regime” similar to Mao’s.[7] The open letters posted by Li and Wang were swiftly removed, ostensibly by government censors as they have scoured Chinese social media to remove criticism of the amendment.[8] Comparisons to North Korea’s ruling dynasty have also been prevalent, and some have likened the removal of term limits to the creation of a dictator in Xi.[9] While some individuals have dissented, Xi enjoys broad public support for his handling of China’s economy and foreign policy, as well as his focus on stability and his fight against corruption.[10] It appears there will be no serious roadblocks for the Constitutional amendment to pass.

The implications of Xi serving three or more terms as president are large for the international community. A simple but important consideration is Xi’s newfound ability to enact his vision for China over a greater period of time, allowing him to take a longer diplomatic view of aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea and the approaches to North Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.[11] If he runs into opposition from Trump, he is secure in the knowledge that he will face a new president within a few years. For now, though, Xi would prefer to work with Trump in the economic sphere, as the US is China’s most important foreign relationship.[12]

Xi’s consolidation of power also represents increasing threats to Taiwan’s de facto independence and Hong Kong’s democracy movement.[13] William Stanton, a former US diplomat and professor of international relations at National Taiwan University, characterized his concerns about Xi as similar to concerns about any dictator: “The problem with dictators is that no one can put a brake on anything they want to do.”[14] In the past, Xi has taken fairly hardline stances on Hong Kong and Taiwan.[15] A worry is that the removal of term limits will weaken the resolve of embattled pro-independence activists in these territories, switching focus from advocating for reform to simply maintaining the degree of autonomy currently in place.[16] Additionally, there is concern that other countries will become less willing to cross Xi and risk retaliation in the form of reduced access to the Chinese market.[17]

There is even the possibility of a new Cold War with the US, due to the unfeasibility of the US maintaining the dominant role in the Asia-Pacific it has had for decades, and a burgeoning military buildup.[18] Trump’s stated desire to revitalize American nuclear capabilities has already prompted a response from Xi to modernize China’s air, sea, space and cyber weapons.[19] Xi appears to view the US as a superpower in decline, and he believes China’s leadership in the region is necessary to fill the forming vacuum.[20] As for the Trump administration’s opinion on the amendment, Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated, “I believe that’s a decision for China to make about what’s best for their country.”[21] Although Trump has shown a lack of interest in global institutions and is apparently unconcerned with Xi’s power grab, he is still interested in maintaining military dominance in the region, setting up the possibility of serious conflict.[22]

While it is impossible to predict what the effects of Xi’s power grab will be, it is clear that the rest of the world has misread his ambitions.[23] During his rise to the presidency in 2013, many commentators predicted that China’s growing economic prosperity and openness would translate to political openness and democracy.[24] Xi has now provided ample evidence that this line of thinking was misguided. In contrast, it would appear that China is poised to transition to greater authoritarian rule, with a vast amount of power concentrated in one man.


[1] Chris Buckley & Keith Bradsher, China Moves to Let Xi Stay in Power by Abolishing Term Limit, N.Y. Times (Feb. 25, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/25/world/asia/china-xi-jinping.html.

[2] China’s Xi Jinping: Extending President’s Rule Would Be Farce, Says Critic, BBC News (Feb. 27, 2018), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-43212839.

[3] Chris Buckley, Xi Jinping Thought Explained: A New Ideology for a New Era, N.Y. Times (Feb. 26, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/26/world/asia/xi-jinping-thought-explained-a-new-ideology-for-a-new-era.html.

[4] Buckley, supra note 1.

[5] Xi Term Limit Proposal Sparks Rare Public Dissent in China, AP News (Feb. 28, 2018), https://apnews.com/3abb380a71614cd7bf291a85dda9eebe.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Ben Blanchard & Michael Martina, China Pushes Back Against Criticism of Plan for Xi to Stay in Power, Reuters (Feb. 25, 2018), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-politics/china-pushes-back-against-criticism-of-plan-for-xi-to-stay-in-power-idUSKCN1GA040.

[10] Supra note 5.

[11] Stephen Collinson & Zachary Cohen, Trump Should Not Ignore Xi’s Power Grab in China, CNN (Feb. 27, 2018), https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/27/politics/trump-china-challenge-xi-jinping-president/index.html.

[12] Id.

[13] Ben Bland, Taiwan and HK Fear China’s Harder Line After Xi Jinping Power Play, Financial Times (Feb. 27, 2018), https://www.ft.com/content/c577bb4a-1b94-11e8-aaca-4574d7dabfb6.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Jane Perlez, Xi Jinping Extends Power, and China Braces for a New Cold War, N.Y. Times (Feb. 27, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/27/world/asia/xi-jinping-china-new-cold-war.html.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Steven Lee Myers, With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongment, N.Y. Times (Feb. 26, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/26/world/asia/china-xi-jinping-authoritarianism.html.

[22] Id.

[23] Isaac Fish, The Myth of Kinder, Gentler Xi Jinping, The Atlantic (Feb. 27, 2018), https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/02/xi-jinping-authoritarianism-china/554375/.

[24] Id.


Online Editor: Christopher Linnen

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