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China Removes Presidential Term Limits


And let's go to Beijing, China, now. Today, that country's legislative body, the National People's Congress, voted to remove presidential term limits from its constitution. That clears the way for China's current president, Xi Jinping, to potentially rule indefinitely. It's another sign of President Xi's consolidation of power that's raised comparisons to the era of Mao. For more, we're joined by NPR correspondent Anthony Kuhn, who watched the vote. Welcome.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Thank you, Renee. Nice to join you.

MONTAGNE: Now, that vote was a bit of political theater because, really, the result was never in doubt, right?

KUHN: That's correct. The stage for the theater is called the Great Hall of the People. And the stage itself was carpeted in red and bedecked with red flags. And then the vote count was very lopsided. You had about 3,000 lawmakers voting in favor of scrapping term limits. You had two votes against, and you had three abstentions, which critics would say, I think, was also window dressing just to make it look like people could vote their consciences. Remember, of course, now that the president of China is basically a figurehead. The people with the real power are the heads of the Communist Party and the military. And that person is also Xi Jinping. And there are no term limits for those jobs.

Now, the party does explain these things. But the explanations have been criticized. For example, the party says it's doing this because of public opinion. People want Xi Jinping to stay on. But they don't produce opinion polls to show - to back that up. They also say that just because they get rid of term limits, that doesn't mean that Xi Jinping is going to rule until he dies. But there are no constraints that anybody can see and no reasons anyone can cite why he wouldn't.

MONTAGNE: What have you found that lawmakers and ordinary Chinese folks are saying about this vote and the idea of getting rid of presidential term limits?

KUHN: Well, let me give you an example. I walked up to some lawmakers in the Great Hall of the People. And they confirmed to me unanimously that they were going to vote in favor of scrapping term limits. And one thing you hear from a lot of Chinese when you ask them is that they say, look. President Xi Jinping is doing a great job. He's getting China lots of respect on the world stage. He's cleaning up corruption at home. He ought to be given a chance to do more. And also, I think it helps to remember that in Chinese political culture, it's basically been the rule of man. And so people feel, let's get a good man, and let's not worry about, if we don't get a good man, what rules are we going to rely on to give him the boot?

MONTAGNE: You mentioned critics. And there are critics. What are they saying about this?

KUHN: Well, you don't hear a lot of them because their views are often censored on the Internet. But I think it's safe to say that they feel very gloomy and pessimistic about the current situation. They look into the future - say 10, 15 or even more years - and they just don't see a lot hope for civil liberties, transparent and accountable government or robust civil society. And they just feel that this is a real historic step backwards into the bad, old days.

MONTAGNE: The bad, old days being China's monarchs of thousands of years?

KUHN: That's correct. They've had about 3,000 years or so of hereditary monarchs and only a hundred years of what they claim is a republic. So people feel that things are going in the wrong direction. And I think liberals are, you know, having a really visceral reaction. They're really - some of them are really upset about it.

MONTAGNE: In another subject that involves China, is there any reaction to President Trump's announcement of tariffs on imported steel and aluminum? Because, of course, Trump has regularly singled out China for its unfair trade practices.

KUHN: Yeah. China's commerce minister, China's foreign minister have weighed in on this. And what they say is, look. We're not trying to pick a fight with the U.S. But we're also not - we're not going to get pushed around. It says these U.S. tariffs are in violation of the World Trade Organization rules, and they'll take the U.S. before the WTO if they have to. On the other hand, you know, the U.S. has already put some pretty heavy tariffs on Chinese steel exports in the past. And so over the past decade or so, those exports have declined by about 75 percent. So that may be one reason why China is not kicking up such a big fuss over the issue right now.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR correspondent Anthony Kuhn speaking to us from Beijing. Thanks very much.

KUHN: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.