Why China’s removal of term limits is a gift to African despots

Chinese President Xi Jinping has led social and economic transformation. Wu Hong /EPA

The recent sitting of the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) rolled out a big surprise development: a proposed removal of presidential term limits. This came among a raft of other constitutional amendments.

The two-term limit had been instituted in 1982 by Deng Xiaoping after his experience with the chaotic post-Mao succession. Term limits were instituted to facilitate orderly succession and to support China’s reform era.

China’s economic transformation wasn’t to be disrupted or sidetracked by unnecessary political struggles and uncertainty. Consequently, successive communist leaders have abided by this limitation. And it has ushered in relatively smooth and carefully choreographed changes of leadership.

The broader implication of this announcement, critics fear, might be that it signals to African authoritarians to strengthen their grasp on executive office and push back on the need for leadership alternation.

In fact observers are already pointing to the increasing allure of the China model as a basis for African economic and political development.

In Africa, term limits have acted as a democratic safety net for the untamed African presidency, and their removal has often been counterproductive. Their removal in Beijing might have the unintended knock-on effect of weakening faltering democracies on the African continent.

The era of Xi Jinping

President Xi Jinping’s tenure has been like no other in China’s recent history. Arguably the most transformative leader since Mao Zedong, he has gone on to cement an indelible mark on the system that paved his way to the top.

As the President of the People’s Republic, chairman of the Central Military Commission, and general secretary of the CCP, he has consolidated his core leadership. He has also had his personal political doctrine; Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era written into the constitution.

While at it, he tore up the rule book by purging the highest party echelons of corrupt officials both big and small. Or in his words “tigers and flies”.

Xi has also pivoted China to the centre of the world stage. He has midwifed an assertive and confident China that is no longer subservient to the West.

Some might even call him a progressive. And this is why the CCP’s proposal to remove China’s presidential term limits could be construed as surprising.

To the keen observer, however, this latest development isn’t as surprising as it seems. This is because there was a notable absence of primed successors in China’s new Standing Committee of the Politburo historically an avenue from which incoming leadership is always chosen. The five existing members all 60 years and above are presumed too old to be considered for president at the 20th congress in 2022.

So for the moment, once the constitutional changes are approved, President Xi Jinping will stay put.

But what impact will this have beyond China?

Relations between Africa and China

African countries are often castigated for their poor leadership record, long term presidencies and atrocious human rights record. Yet in dealing with African states, China professes a doctrine of non-interference in the internal matters of national governments.

The implication has been that China is willing to do business with African leaders irrespective of their political realities.

As a result China’s relations with countries such as Zimbabwe, Sudan, Ethiopia, Gabon, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda - to mention a few - have been buoyed by billions of dollars of investment. In return, China expects Africa’s political support and steady access to the continent’s raw materials. This according to Beijing is a win-win mutual relationship.

With the removal of China’s presidential term limits adds a new dimension to the relationship: African presidents now have a political godfather whose political practice they can claim to emulate. Or at the very least to validate their continued stay in office.

Claims that removing term limits will ensure that Chinese live happier lives, rejuvenate economic and political growth, and fulfil the will of the people mirrors the rhetoric in countries like Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Congo, and Gabon to mention but a few.

China has fast become Africa’s development partner of choice and now the country and the continent are on the same political wavelength.

To be fair, however, while Xi Jinping has superintended over phenomenal social and economic transformation over the past few years (he has been in power since 2012), not much can be said of his African counterparts. While he has aggressively and persistently purged corrupt officials his counterparts continued to indulge in unabated state looting and profligacy.

Unwelcome gift

While ending term limits might be good for China, it is an unwelcome gift for African despots who can now point to China as justification for their authoritarian tendencies. China might profess a non-interference policy, and claim to tailor its engagements on a country by country basis, but it will remain a model for many African governance whether it likes it or not. And therein lies the irony of global leadership for with power comes responsibility.

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