Regularized and predictable change of leadership is perhaps the most important indicator of political development. It doesn’t matter if such changes occur through popular elections (as in electoral democracies), boardroom meetings (in party dictatorships), or through inheritance (as in monarchies). Predictability provides stability and allows for the cultivation of elite consensus over a system of rule. It also provides the background conditions necessary for the rule of law to emerge. A situation in which rules change with rulers is hostile to constitutionalism.
This is precisely why life presidencies are sub-optimal. Long tenures eventually convince even the most democratic of leaders that they are above the law. They freeze specific groups of elites out of power. And remove incentives for those in power to be accountable and to innovate.
For a while China seemed to have turned this corner, having imposed term limits on its state presidents. But President Xi Jinping has thrown that consensus out the window with the announcement that he plans to scrap term limits and presumably stay on as president indefinitely.
This is a big deal. Xi has revealed to us that he is no different than Yoweri Museveni.
Who would have guessed that in the 21st century we would be back to a situation in which the world’s biggest economy has life presidents, and occasionally goes through unpredictable transfers of power? Certainly, the coup risk in China is likely to go up under a life presidency. And the demonstration effect to other autocracies will be huge. Remember that even Vladimir Putin had to engage in questionable institutional jujitsu by allowing his wingman to be president in order not to flout the Russian constitution.
Xi’s China is a reminder of that political development is not uni-directional. It is also a caution against trust that elites’ material interests are a bulwark against would-be personalist dictators. China’s economy is booming (albeit at a slower rate of growth), and continues to mint dollar billionaires. Yet the country’s political and economic elites appear helpless in the face of a single man who is bent on amassing unchecked power (the same happens in democracies with “strong western institutions”, too).
Globally, the annual average of the number of years in office for heads of governments has been on decline since the mid-1980s (see graph). Perhaps we were due for a correction, like happened in the mid-1920s. May be this time we will be lucky enough to avoid the messes that followed in the subsequent two decades (the fact that China appears to be a revisionist world power is not a great sign).
Finally, it is remarkable that even after being around for thousands of years China hasn’t figured a system of stable, regularized transfer of power that lasts for centuries. May be it is the curse of being a big country. Or may be this is just how politics works. It really does put in perspective the achievements of a number of African countries that appear to have consolidated term limits within a few decades of existence.