"Great Leap Backward" was the title announcing the term limit removal in China. This BBC article tells us more about this:

The constitution has been altered to allow Xi Jinping to remain as president beyond two terms and they would not have gone to this much trouble if that was not exactly what he intended to do.

I am wondering why it is this so important.

Putin is de facto leader for more than 3 mandates (not much big difference from "for life") and I do not remember to be illustrated so harshly:

Commentators, analysts and some politicians[7][8][9][10] concurred in 2008 and early 2009 that the transfer of presidential powers that took place on May 7, 2008, was in name only and Putin continued to retain the number one position in Russia's effective power hierarchy, with Dmitry Medvedev being a figurehead or "Russia’s notional president".

Also, China seems to be less active than Russia regarding external conflicts nowadays.

Question: Why is "president for life" in China such a big deal?

  • 11
    Not enough for a full answer, but perhaps it's because China actively changed their constitution to keep Xi Jinping in power, whereas Russian laws already allowed somebody to continually be re-elected if they skip every third term.
    – Giter
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 20:36
  • 215
    If your defense against a policy is "Putin does it too", that's not going to be viewed as a great defense in most of the Western world. Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 20:49
  • 24
    It gives other term-limited presidents ideas?
    – DJohnM
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 3:32
  • 23
    The fact that outing criticism on Xi Jinping can now end in jail time with the "president" for life makes him more a dictator then a president
    – J_rite
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 11:54
  • 14
    if someone doesn't know why is being president for life is such a big deal, then he probably doesn't know why dictatorship is a big deal and he probably doesn't know what freedom is too. I'm from lebanon, people here keep electing the same people, I feel pity for you and them.
    – Lynob
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 21:13

8 Answers 8


Putin is de facto leader for more than 3 mandates (not much big difference from "for life") and I do not remember to be illustrated so harshly

Consider revisiting your news sources somewhat. There was an international outcry at the time (in the West anyway), because he had the constitution changed to stay in power.

Plus, whataboutism is a logical fallacy.

Why "president for life" in China is such a big deal?

Because as undemocratic as the regime may have been in recent decades, it has had a somewhat inexplicable knack for having one or two term dictators rather than a series of dictators for life like North Korea. Some (many?) fear that this change might be a return to the Mao days. Which might be sort of fine to outsiders if you're a backward developing country, but not so inviting to outsiders when you're the second largest economy in the world and the main US trading partner.

  • 15
    Putin didn’t change constitution to stay in power. The Russian constitution always limited only consecutive terms, not total amount of terms.
    – Spc_555
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 22:50
  • 30
    @VasilyAlexeev Putin/Medvedev changed the constitution to allow Putin to return and keep power for twelve years instead of only eight, however. From the very moment Medvedev proposed this people were saying that this was intended for Putin, and they were right. I think the original answer was correct, there was no need to change it.
    – C. E.
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 8:28
  • 9
    @ThorstenS. I speculate that many would argue that consecutive dictators at least allow for the possibility of change. And it allows those who disagree with a leader's policies to (in theory) "wait it out" for the leader's term to end. Of course, if the leader has groomed a successor, it's still a futile effort -- but hope, however fleeting, is a powerful drug.
    – tonysdg
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 13:20
  • 8
    @ThorstenS. Every time a country's leader changes, it's a chance at a real shift in their politics. Often, that doesn't materialise, but in general, a country is much more likely to maintain the status quo as long as the same person remains in power. If that country has less-than-friendly relations with other nations, maintaining the status quo is likely to mean not solving those issues, and issues that persist longer are more likely to turn into sources of more serious conflict. More changes means more chances to make amends - or at least, that's the general reasoning behind this reaction. Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 13:28
  • 9
    @ThorstenS. When the good changes to the bad, isn't that the exact instance when you don't want a lifetime of the status quo? Yes, you're right, change is not always good (many losing political party members will agree with this to varying extent), but term limits are a check on power. Change promotes Justice (the ideal) and allows flaws to be corrected. It promotes democracy because it forces politicians to adjust to social forces (in various ways, to various degrees). Change is not always good, but the alternative is worse.
    – BurnsBA
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 14:56

There will be others wanting power in China. If the President has a 10 year maximum term then those others can hope to gain power keeping out of trouble, biding their time, building networks of support. I.e. playing the usual political games.

If the President cannot be removed by constitutional means, then the only way for him to be removed is extra-constitutional means.

This is a big deal in both Russia and in China. But in China there has been a change of the rules, and so it is currently receiving greater focus and attention. Putin achieved his status by stealth, gradually eliminating credible opposition, using interpretations of the constitution rather then changing it.

Previous Chinese leaders with this kind of power include Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. We may recall the kind of human rights record that these leaders had.

  • 5
    "Others wanting power": Jiang Zemin, who leads a major opposing faction within the CCP. If Xi had a finite term, Jiang could just bide his time then possibly maneuver to install a supporter of his. As it stands now, Jiang's power base will continue to (slowly) erode under the constant pressure by Xi to remove "corrupt" Jiang followers.
    – Nick T
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 21:56
  • 4
    just want to point out that Jiang Zemin is 91 years old. I'm not sure he's really someone you would expect to manuevering seriously at this point, especially relative to Xi, who at age 64 is basically a spring chicken compared to Jiang
    – xdavidliu
    Commented Mar 17, 2018 at 19:22

Why "president for life" in China is such a big deal?

— Because the increasing shift towards a dictatorship state¹ may trigger a chain of uncontrolled events that, in turn, would undermine the Western investments and the international trade.


The logic is fairly simple:

  1. In any country, the government is a mixture of various groups of influence;
  2. Individuals (or small groups) tend to make mistakes, but the looming risk of losing power make the ruling faction to listen up to the opposition: to the electors if there are elections, or at least, to the opposition factions existing in the same political party; this is how, basically, the self-regulation works everywhere;
  3. The absence of the opposition makes mistakes unnoticed; One obvious example, the nationalization of foreign assets can be very tempting, or a political/military demarche would lead to sanctions imposed;
  4. For years, China was considered an undemocratic country, and this almost zeroed its trade with the West. However,

    Throughout the 1980s, the normalization of political relations between the two countries and China’s economic reforms paved the way for acceleration in the American-Chinese transfer of goods, values, ideas, personnel, and technology. — source.

    Here's how it looks like:

    China’s Foreign Trade 1978-2010

In 1978 the total value of China’s import and export was only 20.6 billion U.S. dollars […]
In 2010 the total value of China’s import and export reached 2.974 trillion U.S. dollars, 144 times as much as that in 1978 […]
The State Council of the People's Republic of China


To a great extent, the growth of the Chinese international trade is a result of political and economic reforms in China.

Stepping back would impose numerous risks to the international companies who build their business around the trade with China. Therefore, they consider such a drastic constitutional change a "Great Leap Backward", straight to 1980's.

That's why it's a big deal.

¹ — it does not actually matter whether or not this constitutional change makes China a dictatorship. It only matters how the businesses perceive it.

  • 2
    You are mixing up China's economic reform and politics. China is not going back to its Mao-era communist economy.
    – user17569
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 10:23
  • 6
    There is no increasing shift to dictatorship, China is a dictatorship and was it the whole time. Economic reforms did not change its government. I think you are equating dictatorship=bad economy. but e.g. Nazi Germany's economy was in relation to its size very strong. Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 12:44
  • Follow the money. +1
    – jpmc26
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 23:04

Russia is a democracy (at least nominally). Vladimir Putin could lose a race for the presidency. Xi Jinping will not have to face this at more than the most nominal level. This is not to say that there is no way for him to leave office short of death, but if he does leave, it won't be as a result of public voting. He would leave by some form of coup.

Putin had to leave power and then ran again without incumbency. He followed the existing rules, established prior to his presidency to do so. There is some reason to think that Dimitry Medvedev was more independent than Putin would have preferred (although not everyone agrees). This is noteworthy because it is more difficult to run for an open seat than as a challenger. Of course, Putin was a special case. Xi Jinping won't have to do this, as China is changing the rules.

The outcry against Putin occurred when he left office. Because it was clear almost immediately that he intended Medvedev to be only a puppet, to continue to run Russia, and that he would resume the presidency once constitutionally allowed. By the time that Putin actually resumed the office, the outrage had mostly been exhausted. By contrast, right now is the first that anyone realized Xi Jinping's intent. Presumably the actual moment when he should have left office (under the old rules) will pass with less outcry.


Last year, we saw a shift in attitude toward China in part due to the recognition that China is more nationalist than thought. This article from the globalist publication The Economist posits this clearly - the West got China wrong. Xi Jinping is a part of this - he's more of a nationalist than globalists thought. I write globalists because American, German, British and other nationalists actually cautioned that this was always true about the Chinese leader and its communist party - it has its own interests in mind (the AIIB bank, belt and road initiative, etc were all part of this).

The reason that Xi Jinping being a leader for life is a big deal is that it prevents Westerners from any political interference or infiltration. Take for instance the American interference in Russian elections

As soon as Bill Clinton assumed the White House in 1993, his experts discussed “formulating a policy of American tutelage”, including unabashed partisan support for President Boris Yeltsin. “Political missionaries and evangelists, usually called ‘advisers’, spread across Russia in the early and mid-1990s,” notes Cohen: many were funded by the US government. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser, talked of Russia “increasingly passing into de facto western receivership”.

How can the West do this with China if there is one leader? The one-party system already makes this harder, combine that with one leader, and Chinese nationalism (and later imperialism as their foreign bases in Africa foreshadow) is here to stay for at least the next century and maybe longer.

This is neither positive or negative about China or globalists or nationalists, though readers may perceive bias due to their own views. The reality is that nations have interests and they will play whatever set of cards to convince others they don't have those interests until it's time to disclose their real intent. This is why the Western media turned harsher on China the past two years - some are starting to recognize the rising Chinese nationalism.

Of course, it was Sun Tzu who said "the unpredictable win, the predictable lose."

  • The removal of the two-year presidential term limit is a minor technicality. The process for choosing the president is not changing and has been the same for the past 40 years at least. The big change, causing the uproar and hysteria in the Western media, is the fact that the Chinese Communist Party maintains political power even after 40 years of spectacularly successful capitalist economy. The West's hope was that the Chinese oligarchs created by the capitalist economy would use their wealth to grab political power just like their Western counterparts have.
    – ebhh2001
    Commented Mar 17, 2018 at 15:20

I am also surprised that it is such a hassle.

China was always called a dictatorship by the West (or more nicely "authoritarian") and China still scores low on the Democracy Index. I don't see such a difference between a dictatorship with one leader or a dictatorship with several consecutive leaders. In the end the situation in a dictatorship really depends on how human the current highest leader is and not at what rate the leadership changes.

Given the comments that Russia already allows president for lifetime and this is no defense: While the President of Germany has also a limit of two consecutive terms each five years, the German Constitution also has no limit for being Chancellor which is the most powerful position in Germany. Merkel can legally be elected again and again until she dies.

So while it is not common in the Western world, it does exist.

  • 34
    A lack of term limits for the head of government in Germany (and the UK, and other parliamentary states) vs China or Russia is balanced by the fact that in the former, there are regular free and fair elections, credible opposition parties who are free to criticise the government, and a legislature which is more than a rubber stamp for government policies. For the latter, not so much. Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 0:23
  • 2
    It would be pointless to have term limits in a parliamentary system like Germany. It is the winning coalition that chooses their head of government, not the people. The people elect representatives for Parliament.
    – Stian
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 7:01
  • 3
    Also, chancellor (Mrs Merkel) is not the most powerful position according to the German law - it's only third after president (Mr Steinmeier - 2 term limit) and president of the parliament (Mr Schäuble - no limit). That said, chancellor is the most powerful position in the day to day running of Germany, because tradition dictates that the president will just represent the country and otherwise support whatever the parliament and the chancellor do. But the president has the last say on any laws (rarely he says no) and a whole bunch of other powers he (fortunately) hasn't had occasion to use. Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 8:18
  • 8
    Bear in mind also that in parliamentary systems, there are more ways to remove the head of government (chancellor/prime minister) than just losing an election, including loss of support from their own party/coalition, or loss of confidence from the legislature. Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 9:45
  • 2
    @MSalters I don't think so. Being Chancellor is not coupled at being party leader or even party membership(!), but is obviously practically nearly always so.. Both Ludwig Erhard and Gerhard Schröder were not party leaders, Erhard the whole first term, Schröder several months after his inauguration. And nothing prevents a law which therefore limits the time for being Chancellor. Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 13:16

It is not a big deal. China will still use the same process for choosing their leader as it has for the past 40 years. The only minor change is that China can now choose the same person as their leader more than twice.

We should really be asking how democratic it is to limit the number of times that the voters in the West can elect the same person. Is this limit just a way to prevent a leader from becoming too "popular" by doing something that would be good for the majority and bad for the Western elites (the wealthiest 0.01%)?

  • 1
    That comment is politically naive, and unrealistic. The communist party leader can select regional and powerful leaders as the people that will always vote for him. Power hoarding forces corruption and paying off of supporter ministers and selling off national companies and banks in between friends. That's probably what's happening behind the scenes in China, and corruption is always worse without media transparency and democratic election. That said, the education in China is very high, so it's likely it will just be like Thailand or has been. Commented Mar 17, 2018 at 1:45
  • @aliential The Chinese Communist Party has over 90 million members. Do you really think that one person can select the leaders at the lower levels of such a vast organization?
    – ebhh2001
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 4:03
  • If they control the news, they can influence everyone yes. The leader has direct control of the newspaper editors, so they can program the entire nation's thoughts. Prison/Killing journalists is common in totalitarian countries, but uncommon in the west. The living standard in all democratic nations is higher than in all single-ruler nations in 90% of the times, because Stalin, Nero, Hitler, Mao, Vlad the Impaler, Pol Pot, Chauchescu, All caused poverty and death and were impossible to vote out of leadership. Democracy is religious to the west for that reason. Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 4:48
  • Chairman Mao stayed in power for 15 years after 45 million people died of famine, the biggest famine in the history of the world, that's as many deaths as both world wars. His political system also stayed strong. I don't criticize China though generally, I think that technology is the problem. Chinese are very good people. When humans have very strong technologies, they usually use them to steal and rape people, it is human nature. The technology of aeroplanes, Trains, machine guns, made European Lifelong leaders damage china and africa. Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 4:56

Recall Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was "president for life" of the United States for three terms and part of a fourth until his death: throughout the Great Depression and the Second World War. He was physically disabled and known to use a wheelchair in office, although he did not want to be defined or identified by this condition.

Presidential term limits were not imposed by the Constitution in the U.S. until after FDR's death.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is a head of state in a hostile world. To call him "president for life" is to acknowledge the fact that he faces the risk of assassination in office, among other many other factors that make this a "big deal."

  • 7
    He wasn't "President for Life" - although it must have seemed that way at the time. In truth he could have been voted out of office on three separate occasions, and he didn't have the military arresting his opponents or intimidating voters. So it's really not the same thing. Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 18:40

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