China moving towards Autocracy? A Case for a terminological Clarification

Antje Kästner

China’s National People’s Congress changed the country’s constitution as to remove the ten-year presidential term limit, allowing President Xi to remain in power indefinitely. What implications does this have for China’s political system? Is it becoming more autocratic or more dictatorial? The terminological confusion surrounding political events in China is taken as impulse to explain the difference between dictatorships and autocracies from a political science perspective.

During its annual full session, China’s National People’s Congress on 11 March 2018 passed constitutional recommendations into law that allow President Xi to rule indefinitely. In late February 2018, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCP) had proposed to amend the country’s constitution. The council of hundreds of senior party members recommended removing the expression that the President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China ‘shall serve no more than two consecutive terms.’

The current ten-year limit for presidents was introduced into China’s constitution in 1982, when the office of President or ‘State Chairman’ was reinstated. Then, China’s three top offices – the presidency, the premiership, and the CCP’s General Secretary – were designed to be held by different people. But in response to the Tiannamen Square protests, the presidency and the party leadership were held by one individual from 1993. Still, Jiang Zemin as well as his successor Hu Jintao stepped down from the presidency after having served out their two terms.

China’s current president, Xi Jinping (64), is also General Secretary of the CPC and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, both posts free of term limits. Xi was elected to the presidency in 2013, and is only about to approach the end of his first term. Accordingly, the decision to remove term limits could have waited until late in his second term.

But what implications does the removal of the constitutional limit on presidential terms have for China’s political system? Some media argue that ‘China is now just another autocracy’, that it returns to ‘a one-person autocracy’ or that ‘Xi joins Russia, Zimbabwe in global autocrat club’. Others see it as ‘a move from autocracy to despotism’ or as ‘most significant sign of the world’s decisive tilt toward authoritarian governance.’ In view of this confusion about what form of political system China is aspiring to, let us take a closer look at the concept of autocracy from a political science perspective.

Autocracy – an essentially contested Concept

Arguably, autocracy is the antonym to democracy. Democracy in turn is an essentially contested concept. There are many competing accounts of what democracy is. At the qualitative end, there are, for instance, Dahl’s concept of a ‘polyarchy’, Lijphart’s two dimensions of democracy, or Merkel’s ‘embedded democracy.’ Therefore, one can imagine that autocracy itself represents an essentially contested concept.

In principle, the concepts of democracy and autocracy depend on the way in which the world of political systems is comprehended. A political system or regime is the form of government that prevails in a state. It denotes the political constitution of a state, the set of rules that regulates the interaction between the leadership and the other political actors within society.

Already the Ancient Greek philosophers theorised on political systems. Around 380 B.C., Plato distinguished five regime types – aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny – that display progressive degrees of degeneration from the ideal aristocracy. His student Aristotle classified constitutions according to the size of the government and their conduciveness to the common good. He came-up with six regime types: royalty and tyranny, aristocracy and oligarchy, and constitutional government and democracy. These contemplations are in many ways reflected in modern regime conceptualisations.

Autocracy as opposite of Democracy

Yet, today political regimes are conceived of in more gradual terms. There is a consensus among political scientists, that consolidated democracy resembles one pole of the regime continuum. Therefore, ideal-typical definitions of democracy nowadays tend to form the starting point of any conceptualisations of autocracy. But there are different answers to what the antipole to democracy in fact is.

Linguistically, autocracy means self-rule. But this does not necessarily mean that the term refers to the rule of one person. In the political science literature, there are two competing views of what the opposite to democracy is. One view relates autocracy to dictatorial or authoritarian regimes that are characterised through the absence of democratic characteristics. In this sense, autocracy is seen as negative image of democracy. Others relate autocracy to the rise of hegemonic or one-party systems, which are based on the development of political institutions around a single party as opposed to the capricious rule of a dictator.

Binary and non-binary conceptions of Autocracy

These competing conceptions of autocracy diverge in how they conceive of the universe of political systems. The first view is based on a binary conception according to which all political systems in the world can be placed on a linear political spectrum with democracy at one and the opposite of democracy – whatever it may be called – at the other. The political regimes lined-up along this spectrum see a gradual decline in democratic characteristics. In consequence, all non-democratic regimes are coloured with the same brush.

The other view employs a non-binary understanding of the political universe. Here, political regimes are also placed along a continuum with democracy at one, and autocracy at the other end. But political regimes are not only judged by the prevailing degree of democratic credentials. They are also assessed by that of autocratic characteristics, which are not merely seen as the absence of democratic institutions, but as institutions in their own right.

This conceptual bias is also inherent to the first gradual three-level conceptualisations of political systems that resulted from efforts to measure characteristics of political regimes for purposes of comparative, quantitative analysis and are still widely used today. The Polity project employs a non-binary regime conception and ‘Freedom in the World’ a binary one.

In the late 1960s, Ted Gurr launched the Polity project, coding authority characteristics for all major, independent states in the world on an annual basis starting from 1800. Polity examines concomitant qualities of democratic and autocratic authority in governing institutions and envisions a spectrum of governing authority that spans from fully institutionalised autocracies through mixed, or incoherent, regimes called ‘anocracies’, to fully institutionalised democracies.

Freedom House from 1973, published Raymond Gastil’s ‘Comparative Survey of Freedom’, today known as ‘Freedom in the World’. It works with checklists for political and civil liberties that ranks countries annually on a 7-point scale ranging from ‘free’, through ‘partly free’, to ‘not free’.

The data produced by the Polity and Freedom House are highly correlating. The underling regime conceptions, however, differ. Freedom House conceives of ‘freedom’ as linear concept. Countries in which political rights and civil liberties prevail are democracies. Countries at the ‘not free’ end of the scale are not democratic. As a result, countries with quite diverse political systems are found at the democratic antipole. Polity’s understanding of political regimes is more complex. It does not consider the absence of democratic prerogatives as the opposite of democracy, but assumes that political institutionalisation can take on two views, a democratic and an autocratic one.

The U-shaped Regime Continuum

Such non-binary regime conceptions allow distinguishing more precisely between different nondemocratic systems. In contrast to the linear regime spectrum of binary conceptions, the relationship between the democratic and the autocratic pole rather takes on the shape of a U-curve. A respective regime conception works from the assumption that all political systems can be placed on a regime continuum with ideal typical democracy at the one, and ideal typical autocracy at the other end. Political systems close to the poles are characterised by a high degree of political institutionalisation. Towards the middle of the regime spectrum, the degree of political institutionalisation is gradually decreasing. Political systems in the middle are under-institutionalised. They are frequently referred to as authoritarian regimes, personalist regimes, or dictatorships. Formally they may have political institutions in place, but these are largely defunct.

According to the non-binary concept, political change can occur along four trajectories. Political systems can undergo democratic or autocratic institutionalisation processes. Then we speak of democratisation and autocratisation respectively. In this case, political institutions are developed or strengthened. But political systems can also be affected by democratic or autocratic deinstitutionalisation, processes, referred to as de-democratisation and de-autocratisation. Here, political institutions are either in decay or deliberately abandoned.

China moving away from Autocracy

So, what can currently be observed in China is the deliberate removal of an autocratic institution, namely, that of a regular turnover in leadership. China’s political elite is not only surrendering their right to select the country’s head of state. More importantly, they are also foregoing their chance to hold him accountable in the future. Accordingly, China is undergoing a process of de-autocratisation, moving away from autocracy towards dictatorship.


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