Xi’s ‘dictator-for-life’ move could harm China’s sharp power


The surprise disclosure on Sunday that the Communist Party was abolishing constitutional limits on presidential terms — effectively allowing President Xi Jinping to lead China indefinitely — was the latest and arguably most significant sign of the world’s decisive tilt toward authoritarian governance, often built on the highly personalized exercise of power, The New York Times reports:

The list includes Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, all of whom have abandoned most pretenses that they rule according to the people’s will. Authoritarianism is also reappearing in places like Hungary and Poland that barely a quarter century ago shook loose the shackles of Soviet oppression.

“Thirty years ago, with what Xi did, with what Erdogan has done, there would have been an outpouring of international concern: ‘You’re getting off the path,’ and so on,” said Michael A. McFaul, a political scientist and diplomat who, before serving as the American ambassador in Moscow from 2012 to 2014, wrote extensively on building democracies.

“Nobody is making that argument today,” he added. “Liberal democracies in the United States and even in Europe no longer look like such an inspiring model for others to follow,” said Mr. McFaul [a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy].

Credit: Wikimedia

The change to the Constitution would turn Mr. Xi into a “super-president,” said Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing who is critical of Mr. Xi. “He will have no limits on his power,” he said.

Wang Yiwei, an international relations specialist at Beijing’s Renmin University, said the strengthening of one-man rule was a bid to maximize the comparative advantages of China’s political system compared with the electoral volatility in Western democracies.

Official news media routinely point to the corruption and failings they see in Western democracies. “Why question the Communist Party when the alternative is chaos and corruption?” goes the message.

But the news prompted a social media backlash, Reuters reports, drawing comparisons to North Korea’s ruling dynasty and prompting a Hong Kong pro-democracy activist to accuse China of creating a dictator.

Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China, said the move could give a boost to Western democracies’ ideological appeal at the expense of Beijing’s sharp power.

“The US and other democratic nations should use this latest, clearest Chinese rejection of democracy to highlight the importance of transparency, representative governance, and liberal institutions worldwide,” he argued. “Without such a counter-example, a growing number of countries will credit the purported confidence and competence of what is, undeniably now, Xi’s China,” Daly told ChinaFile.

The preliminary propaganda-based analysis has “suggested that this change was needed for stability,” said Richard McGregor, author of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.”

“Far from providing stability, however, Xi’s decision to remove formal impediments to him staying in power may do the opposite,” he wrote at the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter, an Australian commentary website published by a think tank.

One of the Chinese Communist Party’s “great strengths in recent decades has been to build a system of orderly succession at the top, something that often eluded and defenestrated authoritarian regimes around the world,” he added. “Many Chinese scholars and officials who have worked hard to advance political and legal reforms in China will be furious that Xi is throwing their efforts aside.”

Xi Jinping might find surprising sources of opposition within China — groups and people inside and outside the party that we, and he, might not know about, notes Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese studies at King’s College London and director of the Lau China Institute:

But one thing is almost certain. Western leaders will not be the ones he needs to fear. Strong, stable, predictable leadership in China is key for them. And to achieve this, at least as far as they are concerned, he can rewrite as many parts of the Constitution as he wants.

By enabling Xi to retain the presidency beyond 2023, the party is sending a strong message that it will adhere to Xi’s vision of transforming China into fully fledged modern nation status by 2050 under the party’s firm guidance, AP’s Christopher Bodeen suggests. That puts an end to any notion of democratic reform while signaling to the U.S. and others that China will not waver in its quest for regional dominance in a manner that profoundly challenges the post-World War II liberal Western political order.

Xi is tapping into what China scholars Bates Gill and Linda Jakobson in their book China Matters call a “ferocious nationalism,” notes one observer. They say under Mr Xi hardcore anti-western Chinese nationalists once relegated to the margins are now “mainstream voices in the public sphere”.

Xi has not followed Putin’s example by invading or annexing parts of a neighboring country, but nationalism is such a central part of his rule that it is hard not to expect anything but a steady ratcheting up of China’s demands for respect and recognition of its various territorial claims, analysts said.

“Xi is a big admirer of Putin,” said Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and expert on China’s politics. This nationalist agenda fits well with rising nationalism among China’s youth, he added.

“The most reliable legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party is nationalism,” Lam said. “Nationalism is very important to both the legitimacy of the party and Xi himself.”

China Digital Times

China has a new official political doctrine, notes analyst Chris Buckley. It’s called Xi Jinping Thought, and it is everywhere. Schools, newspapers, television, the internet, billboards and banners all trumpet the ideas of Mr. Xi, the country’s president and Communist Party leader, he writes for The Times:

Officially known as “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” the ideology will soon be given an even more prominent platform: the preamble of China’s Constitution. Boiled down, the doctrine is a blueprint for consolidating and strengthening power at three levels: the nation, the party and Mr. Xi himself.

But Mr. Xi’s assumption of unfettered power may not work out the way he thinks, said Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and a former senior Australian defense official.

“The risks to his personal fortunes are huge,” he said. “What if the People’s Liberation Army decides he should be cut loose?” And, he added, “What if growth slows more than expected?”

“A bombshell,” said Susan Shirk, one of the United States’ foremost China specialists. “I wasn’t anticipating such an open declaration of the new regime … I thought maybe he would stop short of this.”

“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,” said Shirk, who was US deputy assistant secretary of state under Bill Clinton.

Bill Bishop, the publisher of the Sinocism newsletter on Chinese politics, said the move confirmed Xi’s mutation into a species of “Putin-plus” – only Xi was “much more effective, much more powerful and, frankly, much more ambitious” than his Russian counterpart, The Guardian adds.

The proposed elimination of presidential term limits risks an international backlash over China’s strongman politics, but would help ensure the continuity of the country’s policies, diplomatic observers told The South China Morning Post:

Orville Schell, a veteran China expert and director of the Centre on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, said in a commentary on the centre’s online magazine ChinaFile that eliminating the presidential term limit would give China’s ambitious outward push, such as the “Belt and Road Initiative” and Xi’s grand vision for China to take global centre-stage, more durability and chance of success. 

“By enabling planners to project China’s ambitions abroad with more long-term certainty and continuity, the large-scale, global projects it has already launched – such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Belt and Road Initiative, the occupation of the South China Sea, and even its undeclared intention to become hegemon of the Asia-Pacific – now suddenly gain a new presumption of being successfully carried out,” Schell said.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email