As soon as the news broke that China was planning to remove the term limits of its president, the news was pooh-poohed by Western pundits as a retrograde step designed to make Xi Jinping a lifelong leader.
The transformation modern China needs
Since the Age of Enlightenment (or going back much earlier, to the signing of Magna Carta), Western political ideology has privileged the rule of law, curbs on state power and checks and balances.
Against such a background, it is hardly surprising that China’s latest constitutional move is viewed with skepticism.
It would be much more productive to look at the proposed constitutional change in the context of China’s own political traditions and ideology.
To understand what works and what does not work in Chinese politics, it is important to recognize that the Chinese political system has always favored governance by elites as opposed to governance by the masses.
The mythical kings of China’s early history were all elites or sages who won the right to rule through their ability to resolve the toughest problems facing the people.
Indeed, throughout China’s history, only those rulers able to build a strong central authority over a humongous population divided by geographic, economic and cultural disparities were able to thrive; and elite scholar-officials gathered round them. Successive dynasties fell apart when “the center cannot hold”.
At this point in modern China’s development, when it is rising from the devastation of imperial exploitation and civil war, recovering from its past mistakes and carving out a new path for development, it is paramount that the nation enjoys not only strong leadership but also continuity and stability.
The tasks facing the leadership are of epic proportions: China needs to improve not just the pace, but also the quality, of its economic growth; take the lead in innovation and technological development to safeguard the fruits of its economic development; repair the environmental degradation caused by decades of high-speed but reckless growth; press ahead with market reform while guarding against systemic risks and financial Armageddon; ensure the security of the nation against attempts at “encirclement”; and play a leading role in global growth, stability and security.
To achieve these goals, China needs to build on its traditional political system, which benefits from consultation rather than confrontation, and continuity rather than periodic, diametrically opposed policy reversals, as in Western democratic polities.
No doubt, China needs to strengthen its own accountability system, internal checks and balances, and the rule of law to curb corruption and put checks on power. These are no less daunting tasks, as the rule of law as embodied by Magna Carta is alien to China’s tradition.
Slowly but arduously, China is building its separate judicial system and a professional corps of lawyers and jurists.
Despite its size, China boasts an increasingly open market and continuous engagement with the rest of world.
Engagement will foster change, and a leadership team rallying around a leader free of term limits would help the center deliver the transformational changes that modern China badly needs.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong. She is the founder and leader of the pro-Beijing New People's Party.