On Monday, China’s annual parliament will meet, and it is expected to vote on removing the term limit for President Xi Jinping. Yes, mainstream media, President Trump did joke about this — rather distastefully — but not every story is about Trump. This vote, coming in early March, resonates with two opposite events that happened on the Ides of March (March 15) involving Julius Caesar and President George Washington. These events provide key historical lessons, should Jinping wish to listen.
“The Communist party of China central committee proposed to remove the expression that the president and vice-president of the People’s Republic of China ‘shall serve no more than two consecutive terms’ from the country’s constitution,” Xinhua, China’s official news wire, reported.
Susan Shirk, former deputy assistant secretary of state under Bill Clinton, told The Guardian what the vote really means: “What is going on here is that Xi Jinping is setting himself up to rule China as a strongman, a personalistic leader — I have no problem calling it a dictator — for life.”
The famous ancient Roman general Julius Caesar was appointed dictator for life in February 44 B.C. Less than a month later, a group of senators conspired to assassinate him, and on the Ides of March, they carried it out. His grasp for power in becoming dictator for life inspired fear that he would usher in tyranny, and inspiring this fear cost Caesar his life.
Another Ides of March saw an entirely different scenario. George Washington, the U.S. commander in chief in the American Revolution, almost became the first American king. On March 15, 1783, a disgruntled American army asked George Washington to lead a military coup, overthrow Congress, and become ruler of the United States by force.
Washington not only declined to lead an army to overthrow Congress, he rebuked the leaders and reportedly moved the Continental Army to tears. He asked his troops — who had not been paid their wages, despite having defeated the British — whether they were willing to “sully the glory” they had won on the battlefield and surrender the liberty they won in the war.
In a moving moment at the end, he reportedly pulled out a letter to read to the troops, but needed his eyeglasses to read it. “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind,” Washington declared. Many of the officers wept, and the mutiny was over.
Washington is known as the “American Cincinnatus,” because he gave up the power he could have possessed. He later resigned his military commission, and set the standard for American presidents by resigning after his second term. Washington’s greatness lies in helping to establishing the American republic and in surrendering power to sustain that republic in a peaceful transition of power.
Naturally, Xi Jinping is the president in modern China, not ancient Rome nor 1700s America. China has a recent bloody Communist history, and Jinping recently had his version of Communism written into the Chinese Constitution. The great dictator Mao Zedong ruled for 27 years, so Jinping ruling for more than 8 years is not without precedent.
Even so, Caesar’s death and Washington’s great accomplishment should stand as a warning against Jinping’s current trajectory, and a suggestion that true greatness lies in serving the people and retiring, rather than grasping onto power for life.