Since taking office in 2012, he has become head of not only the state, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the armed forces, as is normal for the country’s leader — but also of multiple new party super-committees, prompting speculation from international commentators that he is less of a president and more of an autocrat.
Now a new bill in the United States Congress wants to strip Xi of the title “President,” which most Western governments and English-language news organizations — including CNN — refer to him by.
“The leadership of the People’s Republic of China has gone unchallenged in its perverse pursuits of human rights abuses across decades,” the bill reads. “Addressing the head of state of the People’s Republic of China as a ‘President’ grants the incorrect assumption that the people of the state, via democratic means, have readily legitimized the leader who rules them.”
Xi’s titles have been a topic of controversy and some confusion. None of his official Chinese titles include the word “president,” or translate to it — but all Chinese leaders since the 1980s, when the country began to open up its economy, have had that official English title in China.
Perry isn’t the first to call for a change in designation; for years, critics have argued that this split in Xi’s Chinese and English titles allows him to project an image of openness and representative leadership to the international community that is at odds with his authoritarian style and consolidation of power at home.
A quick history
Xi is known by three main titles in Chinese.
As State Chairman (guojia zhuxi), he is the head of state; as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (zhongyang junwei zhuxi), he is the commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA); and as General Secretary of the CCP (zong shuji), he is head of China’s ruling (and effectively only) political party.
These titles are used depending on context; the military title is used when Xi is dealing with PLA matters, for instance.
It wasn’t until 1982, under a new leader pushing to open China to the world, that another constitution was introduced. It reversed many of Mao’s changes by re-establishing the State Chairman’s office, rebranding the Party Chairman as General Secretary — and introducing the new official English translation of “President,” which has since been used for each successive leader.
The word “president” has Latin roots that mean “to sit before,” which is why it was initially used for heads of colleges or committee leaders. Its meaning doesn’t inherently have anything to do with elections or democracy; but the United States was the first country to use the word as a title for the head of a republic, and other countries followed suit.
The newly adopted English title of “President” reflected this spirit of opening up and increased international diplomacy. It also put distance between the country’s new leadership and Mao’s authoritarian regime, during which up to 45 million people starved to death, and inched closer to how other modern countries referred to their leaders.
The shift indicated “kind of an external alignment with international practices,” said Janny Leung, a professor of linguistics at Hong Kong University’s School of English, in contrast to Soviet-era Chinese titles which “have a strong Communist historical association.”
Some Western newspapers adopted the term president immediately, while others continued using “leader of the Communist Party.”
But as China prepared to join the World Trade Organization in the late 1990s, which was taken as a sign that it was tracking towards a more democratic future, the use of “Chinese President” as a title became more widespread.
The country’s leadership and political landscape have also transformed. Whereas Deng, and other officials of his time, carefully stepped away from the Mao era, Xi has worked to increase Communist Party control over nearly all aspects of society, drawing parallels between his and Mao’s governing style.
At the time, the CPP justified the change as necessary to align the presidency with Xi’s two other, more powerful, posts — heads of the party and the military — which have no term limits.
A ‘war of words’
This rise in tensions has been reflected in how top US officials refer to Xi.
As the latest push to officially change Xi’s title, the “Name The Enemy Act” is more of a political statement than a linguistic adjustment, said Leung, the Hong Kong University professor.
The move to strip Xi of his title of President is a “war of words — a way to diminish the legitimacy of the CCP in this current US-China tension,” Leung said.
“If a foreign country then tells China, ‘No we’re not going to use your official name,’ it just causes China to lose face, regardless of what the term means,” she added. “If that’s the term they choose and if you are denying or (refusing) to acknowledge it, I think that itself challenges the face of the country.”
It’s unclear how likely the bill is to pass; though it has four other Republican cosponsors, there are also only a few months left in this congressional session. If it isn’t signed into law by the session’s end in January, it’ll have to be scrapped and later re-introduced.
The power of such a law, however, rests on one thing: the assumption that Xi still wants to be called President. Some experts argue he might, instead, prefer to revive the retired title of Party Chairman, last held by Mao.
“This year we can see a lot of steps (by Xi) in preparation for the coming 20th Party Congress (scheduled for 2022), but also we could see such change in the English title of Chairman,” said Wu Qiang, a political commentator in Beijing. “The title of Chairman means the top, absolute top, absolute authority. The totalitarian title for the leader of the Party.”
If Xi brings the title back, it would be his most significant step in following Mao’s legacy, Wu Qiang added — a sign that “he wants to turn back to the Maoist era.”
And adopting the term “Chairman” could help Xi consolidate even more power, said Leung — perhaps turning him, literally, into the Chairman of Everything.