This weekend, China's legislature scrapped a 1982 rule that limits the country's presidents to two consecutive five-year terms in office. Country experts have generally characterized the move as a significant shift, and some have raised concerns about deepening dictatorship under President Xi Jinping (see here and here, for example).

China's rule change got us wondering how long national political leaders typically stay in office in China and around the world, and how Xi's tenure fits into that picture. We can get a quantitative handle on those questions using One Earth Future's Rulers, Elections, and Irregular Governance (REIGN) dataset. Updated monthly, REIGN tracks who leads every country worldwide, how long they've held office, and what type of government they head.

So, how long do national leaders typically stick around? The line in the chart below shows the median time in office (in months) for all active leaders worldwide for each month from January 1950 to February 2018. The grey band around that line marks the 25th and 75th percentiles.


With the exception of a couple of stretches in the late 1970s and 1980s, the global median time in office has hovered around four years, give or take a few months. Xi became party secretary general and then president of China in 2012. At five years and change, the length of his tenure remains unexceptional so far. Xi will move into the top 25 percent of active worldwide as he approaches the end of his second five-year term, but he would probably have to hang around for at least a complete third term to make it into the top 10 percent (in early 2018, almost 19 years).

Xi's tenure isn't even close to exceptional for China, either—at least not yet. Here's a chart comparing the total times in office for all of China's national political leaders since the Communist Party took power in 1949. Of the six, Xi's tenure is the second-shortest so far, and he's got a long way to go to catch up with Deng Xioping, let alone Chairman Mao.


Compared to other countries, China's leaders' tenures have tended to run a bit long, but not dramatically so. The chart below shows the average length of leaders' total times in office for all countries worldwide since 1950, where "average" is the country-specific mean from the Kaplan-Meier estimator, which treats unfinished tenures differently from ended ones. The chart covers 200 current and former countries, so you'll have to scroll to explore the whole thing. Here, though, I'll just point out that China ranks 40th out of 200, with an average total tenure of 13 years. So China is not particularly exceptional in this regard, and, as the preceding chart implied, Xi still has a ways to go just to become “average” for his country.

A few other notable tidbits from that chart:

  • In contrast to China's 40th place, North Korea ranks 6th in the world on this measure. In the past half century, only a handful of monarchies have had longer average total tenures, which says something about the dynastic character of North Korean politics.
  • Kazakhstan and Cameroon are the only other non-monarchies to crack the top 10. Kazakhstan has had the same president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, since that post was established in 1990, and Paul Biya has led Cameroon since 1982. Both regimes are, of course, unambiguously authoritarian.
  • The United States ranks 105th, with an average tenure of approximately six years, or a presidential term and a half.
  • Italy and Greece both land in the bottom 10 globally. They are both parliamentary democracies that saw long stretches with frequent turnover in the post-World War II years.
  • Historically coup-prone countries like Argentina and Thailand also gravitate toward the bottom of the list.
  • Switzerland gets a nice, round 1 because its presidency rotates annually, and San Marino lands 200th because its heads of state are chosen every six months. Rules matter.


Jay Ulfelder

Political science Ph.D. (Stanford 1997), research director for the US government-funded Political Instability Task Force (2001-2011), Good Judgment Project superforcaster.