‘Leader of unfree world’ – China’s Xi is ‘courting political catastrophe’


In ending presidential term limits, China’s president Xi Jinping – the leader of the unfree world –  is ‘thinking global and acting local’, The South China Morning Post’s Nectar Gan reports:

The presidency is a largely nominal office in the Chinese political system but it has advantages for a leader looking for a bigger role in world affairs…Xi ‘s push to repeal the term limits of the presidency, a largely nominal office, could be driven in part by his global ambitions and desire to institutionalize the Communist Party as the state, analysts said.

“When the time comes in 2023, he may feel that installing somebody else in this post is dangerous to his own power, because even though the powers of the president are nominal, on paper they are extensive, and somebody who wants to challenge Xi could use that post to make life hard for him,” said Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan (right).

“Xi may have looked at the Putin-Medvedev situation and decided that that kind of arrangement is more trouble and more risky than it’s worth.”

“If he stays on as president after 2023, he can proceed to fulfill with different heads of state on an equal foundation,” said Nathan, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Xi’s move to stay at the helm of the Chinese Communist Party and its government is a reminder of the fundamental instability of the Chinese autocratic system of government, notes John Pomfret,  the author of “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present.” The whims of one man have rocked Communist China before; Xi’s power grab makes it more probable that it will happen again, he writes for The Washington Post.

China has blocked social media users from saying I disagree in a bid to silence dissent over the Communist Party’s recent proposal to allow President Xi Jinping to rule beyond his two terms in office, Newsweek reports. Censors blocked the phrases ‘I disagree’, ‘migration’ and ‘boarding a plane’ on Weibo.

“Censored terms are the best evidence for what people are talking a lot about,” said Xiao Qiang (right), founder of China Digital Times.

“The banned keywords are precisely expressions that are ringing true, as public concerns rise over Xi Jinping’s authoritarian tendencies putting China back politically at least 30 years,” Xiao told the Financial Times.

Thomas Carothers, who directs the democracy and rule-of-law program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Atlantic’s Krishnadev Calamur that the use of such tactics doesn’t always go smoothly. He noted, for instance, that China’s announcement came on Sunday. The country then stifled online dissent about it.

“If they proud of doing this, and it was an easy thing to do, or if there was a good rationale for it, why not do it in the full light of the day?” Carothers asked.

Xi’s continued success in implementing his economic vision is uncertain, at best, owing precisely to the ideological indoctrination and repression that underpin his authority, notes Minxin Pei, a contributor to the Journal of Democracy and author of China’s Crony Capitalism. Despite the propaganda blitz lauding his vision for China, it is doubtful that many Chinese, including CCP members, really believe that their country’s future lies in a centralized, fear-based authoritarian regime, he writes:

In fact, while overt resistance to Xi’s vision is difficult to find – it is, after all, exceedingly dangerous nowadays – passive resistance is pervasive. And Xi’s toughest opponents are not members of China’s tiny dissident community, but rather the party bureaucrats who have borne the brunt of his anti-corruption drive, not just losing considerable illicit income and advantages, but also being subjected to unrelenting dread of politicized investigations.

Xi’s move is also likely to undermine China’s burgeoning sharp power, analysts suggest.

In its geopolitical competition with the United States, China has many strengths. But tyranny is not one of them, one observer notes in The Atlantic:

Last October, the Pew Research Center asked people around the world whether “a democratic system where representatives elected by citizens decide what becomes law would be a good or bad way of governing” their country. Look at the answers in Asia, the region where U.S.-Chinese competition will likely be most intense: 88 percent of Australians and 87 percent of Vietnamese endorsed democracy, higher percentages than in the United States. In Indonesia and the Philippines, the figures were 86 and 82 percent, higher than in France. In South Korea, Japan, and India they were 78, 77, and 75 percent, higher than in Spain.

The most recent change signals something far deeper than the party’s primacy over the law; it spotlights the essential instability of the entire political system, writes Foreign Policy’s James Palmer:

For the last two decades, defenders of China have pointed to collective leadership and the smooth succession from one leader to another as signs that the country had solved the problem that bedeviled other autocracies such as the Soviet Union….But the most recent change signals something far deeper than the party’s primacy over the law; it spotlights the essential instability of the entire political system.

The end of term limits “tells us that that the stepped-up control and repression pushed forward by President Xi will likely worsen under what will amount to one-man rule,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “The decision sends a chilling message to democratic voices in Hong Kong and to Taiwan, both of which have come under intense pressure from Beijing.”

“And it signals that Beijing’s drive to create a new world order in which democratic institutions and norms play little or no role will be accelerated,” he added. “The United States has long acted as if liberal change in China was inevitable as the country’s economy and power grew. The party’s announcement has ended any such hopes.”

NYU professor Jerome Cohen, an expert in Chinese law, argues that the rule change means the Communist Party “has forgotten one of the main lessons of Mao’s long despotism” since the term limit “reflected a widespread desire to prevent the return of one-man dictatorship.”

Xi “could have [stayed in power] as both party general secretary and chairman of the CMC, but without changing the presidential statute he would technically not have been able to represent China on the world stage. This is a clear indication that Xi plans to stay in power indefinitely,” said David Shambaugh, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University:

Regardless of the significance of the presidency, the announcement is a clear message to all at home and abroad that Xi is here to stay, and so are his policies – ranging from his war against corruption, poverty and pollution to the stringent ideological control and fierce crackdown on civil society…. Of course, having an unlimited term also ramps up the pressure on Xi who would have no one but himself to blame if his policies and ambitions failed to deliver.

“Everyone – both inside and outside of China – can now assume Xi will rule indefinitely. Internally, that means that any factions that might have been trying to ‘wait him out’ will now be forced to acquiesce to Xi’s rule and policies,” Shambaugh told the SMCP.

Xi has imposed strict curbs on the internet and reinforced the Great Firewall (GFW). But….

Should enough of the Chinese middle class cross the GFW, the global internet could create a space for the “rich associational life” that China’s middle class lacks, according to Andrew Nathan’s analysis. By keeping the middle class isolated behind the GFW, the government prevents “the contagion of destabilizing ideas” that could spark a revolution, analyst Kelsey Ables writes for The Diplomat.

Dictators have to spend a good deal of their time assuring that they remain in power, adds Noah Feldman, a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University. That gives them the incentive to marginalize or jail or kill the most talented young politicians in their orbit. In contrast, the last several decades China has been able to draw on an extraordinary talent pool, he writes:

Most important of all, dictatorships are terrible at transition. ….The experimental system of time-limited government was not perfect. But it created unprecedented stability in the midst of unprecedented economic growth. It might still be reasonable to bet on China in the short term. But in the long run, wagers on its stability and growth should be revised downward. 

“In the coming term and beyond, the now more empowered [Xi] could well fly high in pursuing his China dream of making China great and glorious again,” said Warren Sun, a historian of the Chinese Communist Party at Monash University in Australia. “But it would be wishful thinking to expect from him a democratic China or a freer civil society in the massively expanding Middle Kingdom.”

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