After the End of Term Limits, What’s Next for China? A Conversation with Peng Yu

Peng Yu is an assistant professor of Politics at Earlham College. I’ve had the pleasure of taking several classes with Peng, including Contemporary Chinese Politics this semester. Following the Communist Party’s proposal to eliminate presidential term limits, I spoke with Peng about the implications of this shift and other topics related to Chinese politics. You can read more of Peng’s work on the website Sixth Tone. -Schuyler 

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President Xi Jinping. Photo by the office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense via Wikimedia Commons

The Column: On February 25th, the Communist Party Central Committee announced a proposal to eliminate term limits for China’s president and vice-president, opening the door for Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely. What’s your reaction to the proposal, and what reactions have you heard from friends and family living in China?

Peng Yu: It’s very divided. If you’re talking about the older generation, like my parents and my uncles and older relatives, they are quite supportive of the decision. They are the ones who are saying: “we’re going to benefit most from a more stable regime,” and they see that there is a potential for regime collapse if power gets more dispersed among elites. That’s what they saw back in 1989, when the regime was very much split into liberals and conservatives. If you have terrible infighting within the party, there’s a very good chance that the party will collapse, the regime will break down, and the country will destabilize. They are worried, having lived through the Mao era and the political turmoil in the 1980s. They are the ones who are more supportive of the regime out of concern for social stability. And they are the ones who are retired and completely dependent on the pension system. If the regime breaks down and is no longer able to support these financial and economic resources for their retirement, that’s a huge problem for them.

However, most of my friends, who are from the younger generation, responded with shock and surprise. Many commented that it’s a reversal to the Mao-era kind of politics where the country was caught in chaos and instability. Many young people also feel very constrained because they envision a worsening and deterioration of freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and civil society. So, they have grave concerns, especially my friends who are working in universities and colleges or in journalism. They are the ones who are most concerned about this change. They are saying: “If China backpedals to this one-person type of regime, how are we going to deal with the ‘bad emperor’ or ‘bad king’ issue that we struggled with back in the Mao era?” My reaction to this is—I share a lot with my younger friends who have grave concerns about the prospects for China’s democratization. And as a political scientist I care a lot about this because we’ve been through decades of a tumultuous political era in China, and with this level of economic development and social diversity, I think the party should move forward in taking bolder actions to embrace democracy. Unfortunately, this proposal is killing all the hopes that I and other political scientists closely following Chinese politics have. This is disappointing and depressing for us.

TC: In an opinion piece for The New York Times, political scientist Mary Gallagher suggests that unlimited rule for Xi Jinping risks weakening the Communist Party as an institution. Do you agree?

PY: Yeah, I definitely share Gallagher’s concern here. It has at least announced the failure of 30 years’ effort to institutionalize the country’s politics. One of the main reasons why we wrote term limits into the constitution in 1982 is because we still had this horrendous memory of the Cultural Revolution back in the Mao era. We were very concerned about ways to prevent this kind of terrible thing from happening again. The party elites back then under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader after Mao, started to think about political reforms that would cap the power of the chair of the party, the top leader. And they did this intentionally because they wanted to put forward a plan for institutionalization of elite politics. They didn’t want one person controlling the whole agenda but instead the collective decision of a group of political elites within the party. What’s also important is that this decision had to be made in consultation with a wider scope of society so that more people could be involved in decision-making. In the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s, the process of deliberation and collective decision-making was still pretty much present. Although it took place behind closed doors, there was still a procedure for the elites to follow. To reach an important decision, such as choosing the next president, leaders would have to consult widely within the party. So, I think Xi Jinping’s proposal announces the failure of institutionalization. We’re reversing back to one individual’s power, influence, and charisma determining the future of the party and the state.

In many ways it also reflects a paradox of authoritarianism, especially this particular type of party-state authoritarianism. Remember we talked about this in [the course] Authoritarian Politics—there are different types of authoritarianism. One paradox and challenge for single-party state authoritarianism is that it dances between an individual elite and the party as an institution. Sometimes the line of demarcation is very blurry—it’s so porous that it leaves room for individual politicians to take advantage of the party. On the one hand, the party wants to institutionalize itself so that there’s more predictability, but on the other hand it relies heavily on individual elites’ effort in putting forward the agenda to get things done. The dilemma is between individual power and charisma and individual worship on the one hand, and on the other hand the demand for institutionalization to avoid the risk of dictatorship. I don’t think that China has done a good job of breaking through this kind of dilemma. The party tries very hard because the higher the level of economic development it achieves, the more complexity there is in terms of elite politics. How are you going to divide up the pie among a group of elites without deliberation, without consulting a wide scope of people? At a critical point such as now, it usually takes a very powerful individual leader to get things done and move forward. Some people even say that back in the Hu Jintao era—Xi Jinping’s predecessor—China’s political and economic reform was trapped. There was no significant progress made during the Hu Jintao era because he was this kind of soft guy who was very reliant on deliberation and mass consultation, but the elites within the party took advantage of his softness and lack of resources to advance their own interests. That led to a very high level of corruption and a very high level of distrust of politicians among society in general. So how can single-party authoritarianism break through this dilemma? Xi Jinping is saying: “I’m going to be the answer.” I feel like it’s not just the ambition of Xi Jinping that pushed forward this proposal. I think it’s the party itself, the state as a whole, that is behind the plan. Of course, Xi Jinping is very ambitious, and he has been thinking about being the third paramount leader. But without the party, without these paradoxes, he wouldn’t be able to do it.

TC: Digging deeper into that question—you said it’s the party itself that has decided to go for one person in charge as an answer to these problems. At this point, does Xi have a degree of hegemony within the party, whereby his decisions are sort of the ultimate decisions, or is this a situation where the party can still rein in the person at the top, but they don’t want to?

PY: I think it’s a combination of both. Xi was the one who took the initiative to bring this proposal to the floor and call people’s attention to the possibility of a constitutional amendment. On the other hand, I think this idea also resonated with a relatively large group of party elites who shared an interest in Xi’s tenure. So, Xi initiated the plan but was also backed up by the party to a certain extent. Of course, there are opponents. Of course, there are ones who disagree. That’s why he didn’t do it at the beginning of his term. He waited five years, after waves of political campaigns against corruption—or a political purge if you want to put it that way. He feels like his power is more consolidated than before, and now he’s brought up this plan and sort of coerced the party into consensus to crack down on opponents and silence disagreements. So, I think it’s a combination of both—Xi designed this and the party has reached a point where they have to rally around his charisma and power to move forward.

TC: What effect do you think eliminating term limits will have on Chinese activists and civil society?

PY: Like I said, there are a lot of connected implications here. On the one hand, you are seeing the continuous encroachment upon civil society and activists—especially civil society—by the state. The state is becoming even more powerful than before in penetrating into society to wield its power and exercise its control. We have already seen this taking place on the internet, for example. In the past few weeks, the government set up the mechanisms and tools of censorship by shutting down the kind of websites and posts and deleting the messages on the internet that sort of challenge or doubt the government’s policy. This has already taken place for a while, and I think the government is going to step up these measures even more. On the other hand, it’s probably also an opportunity for people to share some of the political ideas that they subscribe to. I don’t see the end of term limits as an entirely bad thing—it definitely comes with a lot of negative implications, but I also say that this is a very good opportunity for people to think about their relationship with the state, to think about the value of the constitution, and to think about politics—why it matters and is so important.

As a matter of fact, both inside and outside China last week, we saw many discussions about the possible ramifications of this constitutional amendment in a way that we had not seen before. Previously, many people, especially young people, believed that politics was something very remote from their lives. But this constitutional amendment caught their attention upon national politics. They started to pay attention to politics and they started to talk about politics—that’s very important. They’ve transformed themselves from a subject who is perhaps apolitical to someone who is political. The discussion itself is very interesting and I think in many ways will cultivate another generation of political activism in China. Perhaps it begins with this radical change in the constitution and will come with unpredictable results for China’s civil society. When people look at their favorite posts being deleted and websites no longer accessible, there’s a sense of infuriation instilled in society, and a huge sense of frustration as well. “Why has this happened?” and “how has this happened?” Those are the questions that these people are struggling with. Questioning, thinking, and discussing are the original seeds of political action. You don’t have to necessarily see another Tiananmen protest or something as big as that. Thinking itself is political in this regard; it is an important form of political action. I’m hopeful that the amendment might awaken the younger generation of citizens to something important in their life—that is politics, or democratic politics.

TC: Last question on term limits: many commentators I’ve read have linked the end of term limits to a global trend toward authoritarianism. To what extent do you think Xi and the Communist Party are influenced by this apparent shift?

PY: Could you say more about this question? You’re talking about the international implications of this?

TC: To some extent, but more so to what extent you think that this decision is influenced by a global dynamic that seems to be shifting toward authoritarianism or whether it’s more just influenced by domestic dynamics—if you can meaningfully separate the two.

PY: I think you can argue both ways. On the one hand, you can say it’s domestically evolved, in the sense that, as we just talked about, we have already reached this point where the party feels like maybe one man, one paramount leader is needed more than anything else to make the party more disciplined. Their thinking is that at the end of the day, we are all in the same boat. If the boat of the regime, the boat of the party, sinks, then everybody is going to lose to a certain extent. So, to keep the boat floating, we want to make sure that we stand behind this guy. Even though we disagree here and there—we oppose his authoritarian rule—some of the party elites feel like this is necessary. So, there is a domestic dynamic that drives forward this kind of authoritarianism in China. Internationally speaking, I think China has already bandwagoned with this wave of authoritarianism. It is an important example of this global reversal to authoritarianism that puts President Xi Jinping in line with Putin and Erdoğan.

But the question is why authoritarianism is becoming more appealing in international politics. I think it has something to do with the failure of liberal democracy worldwide. We’re now in an era where new challenges are emerging that cannot be solved by liberal democracy itself. And liberal democracy is trapped in its own inherent flaws—institutionally speaking, culturally speaking, socially speaking—it cannot satisfactorily solve all its problems. So, it’s time for authoritarianism to come up and say, “look, I might be an alternative mode of political life and political governance that will more effectively get you out of trouble.” China, with its miraculous economic success, is pushing forward this model of authoritarianism because it provides the possibility of economic prosperity and very effective political control, or political governance. Many people buy into this because they don’t see any solutions from the side of Western liberal democracy and they look up to China as an alternative mode of political governance and say, “maybe we can borrow this so-called China model.” In the era of globalization, we have seen tons of problems—climate change, international refugees, terrorism, and so on—that cannot be satisfactorily addressed by liberal democracy. That makes this model of authoritarianism more and more appealing.

TC: In his speech to open the National People’s Congress, Premier Li Keqiang encouraged delegates to support Xi’s plan for “‘three critical battles’: fighting economic and financial risks, extreme poverty, and pollution” (according to a news report in The Guardian). How well has Xi done so far in addressing these issues and what do you expect for the future?

PY: Xi Jinping has definitely realized the severity of these issues, that’s the first thing. He has already realized that if the party and the state do not act on these issues, it’s going to backfire. First and foremost, they care about the regime’s security, and they have shown stronger will in maintaining the security of the regime compared to other countries that have transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy, such as Taiwan and South Korea, or even the Soviet Union. Toward the later stage of these countries’ development, they started to lose the strong hold, or will, in maintaining regime security. Look at Taiwan: in the 1980s, the Nationalist Party, Kuomintang, already saw this unstoppable change that was going to make Taiwanese society increasingly diverse and increasingly open. They felt like the party was becoming weaker and weaker in maintaining its authoritarian control of society. What they could do was just let this happen: open up the society, open up the media, and open up political contestation and political participation to a larger part of society. But China is very different. China is showing a stronger will in retaining the security of the regime, and with President Xi Jinping’s tenure, that’s going to be even more visible.

These are the three things that the party figured out might threaten the long-term security of the regime: economic development and financial security, extreme poverty, and pollution. All these things have something in common; that is, they are important sources of political legitimacy. If the party does not take care of economic and financial sustainability, if they don’t take care of extreme poverty, and if they don’t care about pollution, the party is going to lose its legitimacy. I think the society has reached the point where sheer material growth and sheer GDP growth are not going to satisfy everybody. As the society becomes more advanced, more diverse, and more open, people will have increasingly different social needs, and most of these needs are related to non-economic things such as diversity, openness, equality, social justice, clean and fresh water for everybody. Those are the important resources that people also care about beyond sheer economic growth. So how are you, in this new era, going to defend your political legitimacy? You have to really think about these things outside economic growth. Back in the 1980s and 90s, the party thought about a new source of legitimacy. Communism was no longer there because after the demise of Mao, Communism was endangered as a political ideology. It no longer attracted a lot of people. They started to think about economic growth and economic benefits as a source of political legitimacy. Now we have reached this level of social development where people have started to think beyond economic growth to find more critical things when they evaluate the country’s politics.

In many ways, Xi Jinping has shown a lot of ambition and determination in these three regards. In terms of economic and financial security, I think he has been trying very hard to make sure that the country’s economic and financial institutions and systems are still vibrant in fending off risks from inside and outside of the country. I think he’s been working on the issue of extreme poverty for quite a long time, but it’s still something that’s dragging the foot of the government. He announced a plan to completely eliminate extreme poverty within three years, so this is definitely something that he’s looking at extremely closely. Environmental pollution—again this is something that the party has been aware of for a long time, and I think it’s struggled with this for a long time because of the contradiction between environmental protection and economic development. The party has not figured out a long-term, systematic plan for management of this issue. But I think pollution is going to sit on top of the agenda for the next decade or so. I think it’s something that the government is working very hard on. The difficulty is that they lack effective instruments or measures to deal with it because of the complicated political issues and interests involved. It’s difficult for the party to say, “Within the next few years, we’re going to completely solve the problem.”

TC: Are larger environmental issues such as climate change part of the focus on pollution? We see sort of a vacuum in leadership on climate issues with the United States wanting to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Do you see Xi as someone who is focused on reducing emissions and doing other things to mitigate climate change?

PY: Xi is looking at this as an opportunity for China to become more active on the international stage, with the United States pulling out from the treaty. China is one of the two major emitters in the world, but I think it’s also political in the sense that it’s not just about promoting your environmental policies, it’s not just about promoting your agenda here; it’s also about how to promote your political influence in this regard. The government is not joining those organizations and treaties for the sake of protecting the world; it’s also for the sake of advancing their political interest and influence around the world. With the environmental agenda always comes the political, the political agendas. It’s a huge thing for Xi Jinping to think about China’s role in international environmental control and environmental protection in the era of a weak United States, globally speaking. What is he going to do? We still need some time to observe, but I think it’s possible that he’s going to take a more active role in filling the vacuum previously occupied by the United States.

TC: This proposal to end extreme poverty in three years—that’s a very ambitious proposal and it’s obviously a very positive proposal, a very positive step. Do you think the party and Xi are really committed to this, and what do you project in three years? Is that a goal that is going to be reached?

PY: The party has the capacity—economic capacity, political capacity, administrative capacity—to implement this policy, and the party cares a lot about numbers. I think this project will do well in terms of numbers. But my worry is the long-term sustainability. It’s easier for the party to reach a certain level in terms of numbers and looking good on paper than it is to fight a continuous battle against extreme poverty. It’s likely that the party will say by 2022 perhaps, or 2021, that they accomplished the mission of eliminating extreme poverty, but what’s going to happen next? We have already seen these kinds of things happen in China during the Great Leap Forward, where the party projected a very ambitious plan to catch up with the United States, the United Kingdom, and so on, but the consequences were very, very dire. What worries me are the potential social and cultural consequences of this. Yes, you lift people out of extreme poverty, but at what price? Is extreme poverty going to come back in the near future? That’s also something to think about. The party is very good at achieving short-term goals, but it has a very bad reputation in achieving long-term, sustainable goals. In this sense, it will take time to see how far and how well this plan will take place.

TC: What characterizes Xi’s approach to Tibet and Xinjiang, regions where government authorities have cracked down on movements for independence or meaningful autonomy?

PY: He has taken a very iron-fisted approach to both regions. Compared to his predecessors like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, he’s even more iron-fisted. There’s a smaller and smaller space for political dissidents from the ethnic groups of Tibet and the Uighurs to oppose his policy. Over the past few years, China has stepped up its security measures in both regions to the extent that both regions have already been militarized. They deployed a considerable number of military personnel, troops, soldiers. We’re not just talking about police; we’re talking about the military deployed in both regions—they say in order to deter independence-oriented political activists. What I’m seeing here is the government using both regions as examples to show the rest of the country that if you are going to challenge the party’s authority, here’s the example. Today it’s happening in Xinjiang, tomorrow it’s going to take place in Shanghai and Beijing. It’s very likely that the party is using both Xinjiang and Tibet as a field for experiments for an even more militarized authoritarian politics. Like I mentioned in class, the Chinese say, “kill the chicken in front of the monkey to scare the monkey.” In this regard, Xinjiang and Tibet are very much like the chicken that is being slaughtered to scare the monkey, the rest of the country. Because of the strategic value and political sensitivity of those regions, I think the government down the road is going to tighten up its control even more in Xinjiang and Tibet to secure and advance its authoritarian politics in the country as a whole.

TC: You mentioned in class the different social programs and social safety nets for people in rural and urban areas. That’s something I didn’t know about, and I think a lot of people in the U.S. and the West, people outside China, don’t know about. Can you explain this dynamic?

PY: There’s always been this dualistic, dichotomous division between rural and urban. One of the reasons is that they assume different political roles in the development of the country. Back in the Mao era, the major role for the urban area was industrialization and the role for the rural area was to help secure the success of urban industrialization. Mao used this price scissors to sort of exploit the rural areas to feed the growth of industrialization in urban areas. Now in the post-Mao era, there is still a divide between rural and urban, but the role they play has changed. For the urban area, the political and social role is very economy-oriented. It’s about how to boost the country’s economy and how to integrate the country’s economy into the global economy. Along the east coast, you see factories and companies that are open and run businesses in cooperation with the global economy. They are the ones who provide this export-oriented economy to help China engage in deeper relations with the global economy. And in this era, the role for the rural is to provide cheap labor by sending a huge group of workers to urban, coastal areas in order to sustain this export-oriented economy. The social and political roles have changed on both sides, but there is still a divide.

In terms of social security, back in the Mao era, the government set up this very well-functioning social security net, mainly in the urban areas because the cost was very high, and the country was not economically ready to extend it to rural areas. What they did was set up the hukou system. This served to bind peasants to the countryside. That means that the farmers, the peasants, were not allowed to live in the city and compete against urban residents for benefits. In the post-Mao era, the hukou system was still there as a very good example of the social division between rural and urban. Now the system allows a certain kind of social mobility among the peasants. In other words, the hukou system has loosened up a little bit, especially in the smaller cities. They allow peasants to move to the city and live there, buy a house, buy property, and work in the city. Yet, on the other hand, they still block access to the social welfare system because they see those peasants as a burden and as a potential threat to the system. They are now using the peasants as a source of cheap labor and as a driving force for mass consumption. They want these peasants to come to the city, spend their money, and also make money for the city, yet they don’t want the peasants to live there and enjoy the benefits that urbanites are enjoying. I think that’s a very important division, but depending on the specific era, the Mao era versus the post-Mao era, the social roles and the function of this division changed. Previously, it was about industrialization, and now it’s about China’s capitalist economy. What is common to the two eras is that cities are not willing to give benefits to the other major part of the country’s citizens.

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