Chinese leader Xi Jinping holds so many titles that he has earned himself a nickname: the “Chairman of Everything.”
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 bill, called the “Name the Enemy Act,” was introduced to the House of Representatives on August 7 by Republican Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania. It would prohibit the federal government from creating or disseminating any documents that “refer to the head of state of the People’s Republic of China as anything other than General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, or alternatively, as General Secretary,” according to a draft of the bill.
“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.
“China is not a democracy, and its citizens have no right to vote, assemble, or speak freely,” said the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a US government panel, in a 2019 report to Congress. “Giving General Secretary Xi the unearned title of ‘President’ lends a veneer of democratic legitimacy to the CCP and Xi’s authoritarian rule.”
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.
In English-language government communiques and state-run media, however, Xi is referred to as the President – but that wasn’t always the case.
The country’s 1954 constitution, which was adopted several years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, refers to the Chinese leader as “Chairman” in its original English translation.
Mao Zedong was the first to hold this position. In 1975, he pushed through a new constitution that emphasized the Communist Party’s authority over the state’s, by eliminating the State Chairman office entirely and granting sweeping new powers to the Party Chairman instead.
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 1980s were a time of sweeping reform and globalization in China, as then-leader Deng Xiaoping loosened government control over the economy and certain personal freedoms.
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.”
Even the state-run paper China Daily said in 2009 that the new title was introduced because “the heads of state in the world’s republic countries are all called President in English.”
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.
China looks very different today than during Deng’s era. It has cemented its position as a world leader, and its GDP has jumped from $150 billion in 1978 to $14 trillion last year, becoming the world’s second-largest economy.
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.
In 2016, Xi was named “the core of the Chinese Communist Party” – cementing his position above his peers and demonstrating his grip on power. The title was originally granted to Mao, then to Deng and Jiang Zemin, Deng’s handpicked successor.
A year later, his name and political ideology, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, often simply known as “Xi Jinping Thought,” was formally written into the Communist Party constitution – an echo of “Mao Zedong Thought.” No other sitting Chinese leader has had their names enshrined in the party constitution this way; “Deng Xiaoping Theory” was added to the party constitution after Deng’s death.
The most stunning move came in 2018, when the country’s constitution was amended to abolish presidential term limits – leaving Xi free to serve indefinitely as China’s head of state.
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.
Xi’s tightening grip and crackdown on dissent have prompted some journalists, policy experts, and others in the West to urge dropping the English title “President,” arguing that it doesn’t accurately represent the nature of his leadership. Instead, they say, foreign media and governments should adopt the literal translated version of Xi’s Chinese titles, which better reflect his role.
And in its 2019 report to Congress, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission announced it would begin referring to Xi using “the title by which he derives his authority: General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.”
A ‘war of words’
Perry’s bill comes as relations between China and the US continue to hit new lows. In recent months, the countries have blamed each other over the spread of Covid-19, and closed a pair of consulates over a worsening national security spat. US authorities have taken aim at several Chinese tech firms and threatened to ban the popular apps TikTok and WeChat.
This rise in tensions has been reflected in how top US officials refer to Xi.
In the past two months alone, FBI Director Christopher Wray, US Attorney General William Barr, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have all referred to Xi by the title of General Secretary in speeches and statements – a clear departure from the White House’s previous practice of referring to the Chinese leader as “President Xi.”
Pompeo has also taken steps to distinguish the CCP from its citizens in recent criticism, saying in July that the Chinese people “are completely distinct from the Chinese Communist Party” – rhetoric that Xi has bristled at, and that experts say is designed to further delegitimize the CCP by driving a wedge between the party and those it supposedly represents.
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.
After all, she said, there are plenty of authoritarian countries that use terms associated with democracy – for instance, North Korea’s official name is Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And Russian leader Vladimir Putin is still referred to as “President,” even though opposition figures and critics have accused the country’s elections as being “fake.”
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.