We are missing an important perspective on China and its leadership says Keyu Jin, and not for the first time. Accountability for outcomes is the real issue

We are missing an important perspective on China and its leadership says Keyu Jin, and not for the first time. Accountability for outcomes is the real issue

By Keyu Jin*

China’s recent constitutional amendment eliminating the term limits for the president and vice president has left much of the West aghast. Critics fear the emergence of a new and unaccountable dictatorship, with President Xi Jinping becoming “Chairman Mao 2.0.” This response is more than a little inappropriate.

Long tenures are not exactly unheard of in the West. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has just begun her fourth four-year term – a development that the rest of Europe has largely welcomed rather than criticized.

Of course, a Westerner might argue that Merkel has an electoral mandate, whereas Xi does not. But democratic elections are not the only way to achieve accountability. And Xi’s approval rating, according to almost all international surveys, seems to exceed the combined approval ratings of US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Theresa May. While there may be reason to worry that Chinese politics could change for the worse, the same is true in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Term limits are little more than an arbitrary constraint, which are not needed to ensure competent and responsive government in China. In fact, term limits could do just the opposite, cutting short the tenure of effective leaders, leading to policy disruptions, or even leading to political chaos.

The US has long recognised this. Alexander Hamilton wrote that it is necessary to give leaders “the inclination and the resolution” to do the best possible job. They can thus prove their merits to the people, who can choose to “prolong the utility of [their leaders’] talents and virtues, and to secure to the government the advantage of permanency in a wise system of administration.”

In 1947, however, following President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election to four terms in office, Congress enacted the Twenty-Second Amendment to the US Constitution; since its ratification in 1951, US presidents have been limited to two four-year terms. The idea was to make a virtue of inexperience. But most new presidents make significant blunders at the start, and now there are more starts. If the US had no term limits, Trump might well not be in office today.

To be sure, term limits have their value. Deng Xiaoping added them to the Chinese constitution after the Cultural Revolution, in order to prevent the recurrence of chaotic and brutal one-man rule. But the new generation of Chinese leaders is not just well-educated, but also well aware of international norms and standards. Unlike the ideological diehards of the past, they can be expected to behave rationally, intelligently, and responsibly.

In this context, the removal of term limits will enable Xi to sustain a complex reform process that will take years to complete. It will not make him president for life, nor deliver him unbridled and undivided power.

Western critics emphasize that Xi has done much to concentrate power in his own hands over the last six years. And, to some extent, that is true. For example, he has taken over some of the economic policy decisions that used to be the prime minister’s domain.

But a strong leader is not necessarily an autocratic leader. And, in a high-stakes environment, a strong leader is needed to neutralize vested interests that resist crucial reforms. Xi knows the obstacles that blocked the implementation of his initiatives during his first term, and he is committed to overcoming them.

In any case, the situation is hardly a “one-man show,” as much foreign commentary suggests. Half of the members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s supreme government body, are not of Xi’s choosing. And compromises were made in the placement of many senior officials, including key cabinet members.

It would be a mistake to assume that because China has vowed not to copy the Western political model, there are not hidden democratic processes at work. While leaders are not elected, either directly or by a representative body, their performance is subject to close scrutiny – for example, by the National People’s Congress (NPC) and local people’s congresses. The Chinese government is also unusually responsive to citizens on social media.

Moreover, checks and balances, though still inadequate, have been strengthened in recent years. Policy changes require consensus within the Politburo, especially the Standing Committee. On major issues, the NPC must give the green light. Nothing stops deputies from casting a dissenting vote, thanks in part to the growing prevalence of secret ballots. A small but significant feature of this year’s Congress is the elimination of the electronic voting system; instead, officials will drop paper slips into a ballot box.

This is not the first time that Western media have adopted a perspective on Chinese political developments that runs completely counter to the prevailing view in China itself. Over the last few years, Xi’s anti-corruption drive has raised many eyebrows in the West, where it is often regarded as just a means for Xi to remove would-be political rivals. But the almost two million officials who have been indicted surely weren’t all Xi’s opponents. Among Chinese, the effort to root out corruption has boosted respect and support for Xi.

In the West, government accountability is closely identified with democratic elections. In China, it is a function of how – and how well – the government responds to and protects the needs and interests of the people. Given the sheer complexity of modern China – not to mention the paramount need for the government to continue the country’s progress toward high-income status – success may require leaders to stay in place longer than initially expected. But, if recent history is any guide, the recent changes will contribute to making China’s political and economic system increasingly stable – without undermining accountability.

Keyu Jin, a professor of economics at the London School of Economics, is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and a member of the Richemont Group Advisory Board. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018, published here with permission.

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Napoleon was right about China.

One of experts from a CCP's think tank said China will adopt Singapore's model with some configurations, and the West will face a giant Singapore in next 50 yrs.

The Singapore model works because it is a city state with little land and people. It will not work for china due to the scale of governance. That's why empires of the past always crumbles or scale down eventually.

And then we have Putin.

Vlad the Bad was democratically re-elected by a 85 % majority ...

... by all the people he hasn't currently had shot or imprisoned ... Putin the boot into the non-believers ...

"In China, it is a function of how – and how well – the government responds to and protects the needs and interests of the people. " Except for the people of Tibet and Hong Kong, they are just low lives rebels. LOL!!! While the western democratic elected govt is not the best model of govt ever, they are indeed better for the people in comparison to what CCP china have by a long shot. Did people forget that the people liberation army (PLA) belongs to the CCP rather than the govt?? How can that be good for the people when CCP is ruled by a dozen or so high commies??!!!

For those who are unsure of what this means. Is like national or Labour Party have their own private army and can just roll over any new govt whenever they wish even if they were voted out!!

... Winsome Peters has the Guerrilla Grannies & the Gunner Grandpa's of the Greypower People's Army ...

That's his private army of devoted followers and voters ..

... and they turfed out Wild Bill & the Gnats ... who were the people's choice to lead ...


Looks like we are wrong to think of an autocracy as non democratic or a worry. Silly us

Unbelievable. This author is a professor of economics at the London School of Economics and is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader! I know education in the UK has sunk but this woman is frightening. It is possible to defend president Xi but this is a shambles not a defence. Take "hidden democratic processes" - that is a good definition of "undemocratic". Or president Xi high approval rating - so was Sadam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi and lets add Kim Jong-Un.
And what about ""the new generation of Chinese leaders is not just well-educated, but also well aware of international norms and standards. Unlike the ideological diehards of the past, they can be expected to behave rationally, intelligently, and responsibly."" would you bet your life on it? And of course with their army and navy and missiles and nuclear capability we all have bet our lives on it.

Calm down.

I predict that in near future democracy in the West will be replaced by some other forms when disruptive technology completely overhauls the current way of production and consumption.

Bear in mind the truth -- Democracy is the result, NOT THE CAUSE, of industrialization and modernization.

I'm not as worried about president Xi as I am about this author 'a young global leader' and her use of doublespeak.
Doublespeak is language that deliberately obscures, disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words.
If I was defending president Xi I would be emphasising his intelligence, self-control, patience and of course his rise from poverty and obscurity. Someone with knowledge of being at the bottom has a better chance of being an astute leader for all his people: so president Xi and John Key are preferable to Kim Jong-Un and president Trump.

The London School of Economic Wreckers is a rather dodgy background, traditionally somewhere way to the left of the CCCP. Scary lot if you ask me.

""Democracy is the result, NOT THE CAUSE, of industrialization and modernization"" - may be some truth. However industrialisation and modernisation - was presided over by Lenin & Stalin, and pre-war Japan and of course Hitler in Germany. They didn't turn out too well. I really am attached to a system that lets me attack PM Jacinda today and then change my mind tomorrow. With Stalin there was no tomorrow.

Hear hear.

I really wonder about this so called professor's background..... things like who paid her school fees and does she still have relatives in china??? (ie the would be political hostages if you say the wrong words against CCP)

Yes both Hitler and Stalin, at that time in the world, knew full well the power of, terror as a weapon, and of death as a solution. Awful to have to acknowledge that elements of the same cataclysmic & mortal totalitarianism resides not so far from the surface in many parts of our world today.

"in near future democracy in the West will be replaced by some other form"

... of de-centralised individualism under an AI protectorate. One can hope.

They're inside western universities corporations and even political parties feeding information back to China. And we're dumb enough to let them because democratic capitalism only cares about a quick buck. Sometimes you see the odd bit of propaganda on this site but at least we're not falling for it.

China will devolve - again.
Ever played Risk? China can never be held, except by luck.
You can't suppress free thought and freedom of expression for ever. Human exuberance and irrepressibility will always prevail.

East is East & West is West and the rest. Somebody knew what they were talking about a long time ago. Not much has changed.

OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!


“There it is.” That was a well versed idiom by soldiers of the west fighting in the east, Vietnam. Interesting how the past can still provide for the present. The same author., if I remember correctly something like

It’s Tommy this and Tommy that,
and Tommy how’s your soul,
but it’s a thin red line of heroes,
when the drums begin to roll.

That appropriately & eloquently prefaced James Jones classic for another west east theatre of war, and it still rings oh so true today, in every walk of life.

This is pure CCP propaganda and it is disgusting. Taking the main point of the author, if the CCP was truly accountable then how could it possibly in power after the "Great Leap Forward" and the "Culture Revolution". The CCP is responsible for the deaths of 10s of millions of Chinese and for the near destruction of Chinese culture.. It remains in power because when people protest the tanks are called out and people are crushed like in 1989. If citizens can never change government then I cannot see how it is possible to say a government is accountable to the people.
I agree that the CCP is deeply attuned to social media - not to leap into action and listen to the people's concerns - but rather to suppress dissent. Words and phrases get banned from WeChat and Weibo regularly. The phrase "Winnie the Pooh" was banned as some had made a comparison between the bear and XI. The "Great Firewall of China" is to ensure that citizens cannot freely access information and actual hold their government to account.
The CCP is not accountable and it is a sick sad joke (unfortunately the Chinese people are the butt of the joke) to even suggest otherwise. I normally don't like to question the character of authors but in this case I think this professor is morally bankrupt and is an apologist for one of the worse regime in history.

And then there is NK. Many contributors on this site are anguished by the fact that the CCP has no real inclination to rein in the excesses of that dictatorship. Why should they? It is after all a vassal state, in their very own image.

Spot on!! For all those who reads this from a westerner background and thought it is perhaps a good idea to give the CCP a benefit of the doubt just look at Hong Kong and the state it is in now. Completely going backwards from being able to voice one's opinion freely and having a fair legal system in place like most westernised country to police arrest if you are outspoken and court trails that is completely one sided from the start. "one country two policies"??? "50 years don't change"??? Complete BS promises that only took about 15 years to unfold.

An argument that holds some appeal in these divided times. However the west has had plenty of experience with one party rule over the last few millennia and the lesson we have taken time after time is "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely". Xi maybe a wonderful, impartial technocrat now, which is a somewhat debateable proposition for a start, but it is highly unlikely that he will stay that way.

You need to watch "The China Hussle"...
Not only as an investor but to gain insights into China.

A great doco and again a very frighning in how little the people that are supposed to protect us actually do.. from Auditors, SEC etc.

Its as good as The Big Short; but this time its telling people up front!

BBC The Inquiry article: How Do Dictators Survive So Long?