Let’s start with a discussion about precedent in China. As Christopher Johnson put it, “Chinese politics has no rules”. The institutionalization of China’s political system over the past 20 years has been based on informal and unwritten rules and norms. But how can we call them “rules” or “norms” if in fact they are unwritten and could be ignored? In Chinese politics, it would be far more helpful to talk about precedents.
There is no rule that says that Chinese politicians need to retire at 68. But there are clear precedents that pressure current politicians into retirement once they reach that age. There are no rules that say a Party General Secretary must retire after two terms, but there are clear precedents that force them to do so.
How powerful is precedent? We can find a very good analogy in the United States. When it came into force in 1789, the Constitution said nothing about presidential term limits. A president could rule forever, if the people loved him. But America’s first President, George Washington, decided to do something different: after only two terms, he retired. There was no rule to force him to do so. And there was no rule to force Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe or Andrew Jackson to do so. Yet, invariably, all have retired after two terms. This precedent created by George Washington’s example has been respected for over 150 years. Only Franklin Roosevelt, in 1940, when war was raging in Europe and Asia, broke this precedent. And once that happened, the unwritten rule was finally codified in the Constitution, so that no other president could ever attempt the same. 150 years. Precedent might not be written, but it is powerful.
Ask yourself: didn’t any of all these presidents want to remain in office for more than two terms? Were they not human beings, instead of saints, driven by the desire to rule? Indeed, Ulysses Grant wanted to run for a third term and Theodore Roosevelt tried to win a third, non-consecutive term, in 1912. Yet most presidents acquiesced in following Washington’s precedent. Odds are that, had they tried to break this precedent, they would have been submitted to ferocious attacks about becoming dictators and betraying the spirit of previous presidents.
As precedent is unwritten, the only constraint is political pressure. If a Chinese leader is truly powerful, he could break some precedents, because he wouldn’t be constrained by political pressure. We can start testing Xi’s power by seeing how he was constrained by precedent, especially in the context of the narrative that Xi plans to remain in office after 2022.