This past week the Western media seized on the news out of China that the Communist Party of China has lifted the 10-year term limit placed on the office of the president following the death Mao Zedong. The Western coverage was, as would be expected, alarmist in tone, even though Xi Jinping has just begun his second five-year term and the amendment is largely meaningless for the time being.
That’s not entirely true, of course, as it will preclude Xi having to govern with ‘lame duck’ status as his second term winds down. And that is a good thing, to be sure. President Obama’s lame duck status in 2016 certainly didn’t serve Americans all that well. If nothing else, it changed the profile of the US Supreme Court rather profoundly, and, in the eyes of many, rather illegitimately.
Western journalists, of course, couldn’t resist the comparison to Mao, and whenever they speak of Mao they can’t resist talking about the Cultural Revolution. The word “authoritarian” was bandied about with great consistency. Virtually no Western account of the change, and I looked pretty hard, applauded the move. Virtually every report implied a doomsday scenario and, without exception, tough sledding for the US and our ‘interests,’ without ever specifying, of course, what those interests are, other than the ability to have our way in the world.
I was initially rather neutral on the announcement but with time I have concluded that this is a very good thing for China and the US both. Transitions of power seldom go smoothly and as we’ve seen over the last year a lot of mistakes are typically made when a rookie takes control of the big red button. There’s a lot to learn, experience does count for something, after all, and as much as we dislike political alliances when they stand in the way of what we want to accomplish, they are a necessity of political life in every nation on the planet, and they do take time to take shape.
Americans forget, perhaps, that the Founding Fathers didn’t stipulate term limits for the presidency. Hamilton and Madison, in fact, argued for a lifetime appointment, although, in fairness, most of the Founding Fathers didn’t want the president to be elected, either. They preferred a congressional appointment, although it would appear they ultimately concluded that would make congressional collusion too tempting to resist. (It appears Congress’ trust ratings were low even before there was a congress.)
President Franklin Roosevelt, of course, was elected for four terms during the course of the Second World War. And while the 22nd Amendment was ratified in 1951, limiting any subsequent president to two four-year terms, I’ve never seen any historical analysis of Roosevelt’s presidency depicting his reign with quite the same sense of authoritarian doom and gloom they are depicting President Xi’s.
I often fear that I speak too frequently of the inevitable dualities of life and the universe so I won’t go there now. I will note, however, that while most Western journalists now depict Xi’s battle against corruption as they would depict a Soviet purge, that is not an accurate depiction at all. Shortly after his election in 2012 Xi issued what came to be known as the ‘eight rules.’ These applied to all members of the government, not just his political foes, and had as much to do with efficiency, wasteful spending, and decorum, as corruption. One of the rules, for example, was, “All government meetings shall be short, clear in focus, and all empty and courteous comments should be eliminated.” A good rule for any government, in my book.
As I was living and working in China at the time, and one of my important markets were the upscale hotels and restaurants that catered to government officials and the citizens lobbying them, I can say from experience that Xi was serious. While Chinese culture still turns on a shared meal, the alcohol is gone and the menus are modest. And there are no exceptions, foe or ally.
The title of president, truth be known, is probably Xi Jinping’s least authoritative title. It has long been a nominal role in China and in fact has not always been filled. That’s not to say that Xi Jinping isn’t powerful. He is. But we shouldn’t apply our American norms to others without getting the facts first.
In my own book, We, Ourselves, and Us: Creating a More Just and Prosperous America, I actually argue that we in the US should extend our own presidential term limits, although I do likewise argue for limiting any one president to one ten-year term.
There are three reasons for my recommendation. The first is that we have to take the money out of our politics or special interests are going to drive us over the cliff. Human nature being what it is, however, neither the politicians nor the wealthy interests that support them are ever going to do that voluntarily. The only way to get the money out of politics is to take the politics away from the money. One 10-year term for the US presidency would essentially provide less than half the chances for money to buy an election. And, if nothing else, I think the parties—and the voters—would think twice about which candidate they nominate if they knew going in it was a 10-year choice. (It might also lead to younger candidates, which isn’t all bad.)
The second reason is the accelerating pace of change in the world today. If the world is changing faster, of course, that would seem, intuitively, to argue for shorter terms of office. I think this is one of those cases, however, where counter-intuitive is the sounder choice. It’s like standing on the gunnels of a canoe. When you first step up the canoe is going to rock like heck. Once you get it stabilized you’ll want to just hold it there for a while. Do we really want to go through the lame duck/first year transition every four years? I don’t think so. The world is moving too fast to waste that much time and effort today.
And thirdly, I argue for a 10-year presidential term limit because nobody else in our government has a term limit, and given that we are a three-branched republic the net result is that nothing gets done when the president’s term in office is so limited. Senators Hatch and McConnell, and House Speaker Ryan, have served in the US Congress for 41, 33, and 19 years, respectively. Their Democratic counter-parts, Senator Schumer and Representative Pelosi have served for 37 and 31 years, respectively. And the members of the Supreme Court, of course, serve for life. Justices Kennedy, Thomas, and Ginsburg have served for 30, 27, and 25 years, respectively, a period during which they have very much interpreted and made law.
Critics, of course, will point out that the members of Congress are re-elected every two (House) and six years (Senate), but that’s not true in any practical sense. Between gerrymandering and the powers of the purse that an incumbent enjoys, Americans, as a practical matter, exercise their right to kick their politicians out with an infrequency that borders on nil.
But getting back to China, the country has just completed a period of extended development and global ascension unlike the world has ever seen. Xi Jinping himself, however, would be the first to admit that a lot of work remains. And much of that work, such as the building out of the One Belt, One Road initiative, domestic legal reform, and the establishment of stability in the region are all going to take time. Having a steady hand at the helm is going to be in everyone’s best interests, including those of the average Chinese and American.
I admit that I might not feel that way if the president in question was not Xi Jinping specifically, but it is, and I think he is the right person to lead the country forward. As Henry Kissinger once observed, the Chinese have a knack of picking the right leader at the right time, and I think that Xi Jinping is no exception.
I’ll let you decide for yourself if we Americans share the same skill.
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