Can China avoid sliding back into strongman politics as Xi Jinping reshapes charter in his own image?
If anything goes wrong ‘one person will have to accept responsibility for everything’, expert warns
The Communist Party’s plan to remove the two-term limit on China’s presidency from the country’s constitution has sparked a global debate about the dangers of a return to strongman politics.
Even though many had anticipated Xi – the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong – would find a way to retain power after completing his second five-year term as president, which has yet to start, few could have guessed he would reveal his cards so early.
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If Xi’s goal was merely to remain in control, the presidency, a largely ceremonial office with limited power, would not be critical. Its value mainly rests on it being the best title for Xi to represent China on the world stage, but it was also the only one of his many titles – the chief of which are party general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission – with an explicit term limit.
The proposed constitutional amendment announced on February 25 shows that Xi plans to stay in control and is ready to abandon a set of written and tacit rules that have partially institutionalised power transitions in China for the past 15 years or more.
Those rules – including the term limit on the state presidency, an unwritten age limit for members of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest decision-making body, and the installation of a designated successor – were established gradually after the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution to broker power-sharing among party factions. Imperfect as they were, they brought about two peaceful power transitions in the past 15 years – from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao and then to Xi – a rare feat in modern Chinese history.
Analysts fear abandoning them will significantly increase political risks in an already opaque system. It was not clear what new procedure Xi would come up with to hand over power, they said, and in the absence of one, Chinese politics could get more oppressive and labyrinthine.
“It increases anxiety and uncertainty, thus leading to the forging of stronger patron-client relationships within the party,” Professor Daniel Leese, from Germany’s University of Freiburg, said.
Professor David Shambaugh, a political scientist at George Washington University in the United States, said it was “another indication of the personalisation of power in Xi Jinping and the continuing decline of rules meant to constrain power and regulate the political elite”.
“This move is another step backwards in the institutionalisation of Chinese politics, that Deng Xiaoping began in 1978 and Xi Jinping has been reversing since 2012,” he said.
To many, that personalisation of power began in 2016, when Xi was anointed the “core” of the party – bringing back an obscure title that had not been used for 10 years and had previously been held only by leaders in power for more than two consecutive terms.
The signals grew stronger at the party’s national congress in October last year, when no designated successor was installed. While Xi did not break the age limit rule to keep trusted ally Wang Qishan in the Politburo Standing Committee, Wang did not fully retire from politics either. Several sources have told the South China Morning Post he will be made vice-president at the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, which begins this week.
To most Western observers, this smells of a dangerous return to strongman politics.
“China is now run by one man, not a collectivity of leaders or by institutions,” Shambaugh said. “China is reverting to a patriarchal rule reminiscent of the Mao era.”
People’s Daily, the party mouthpiece, argued in an article on Thursday that scrapping the term limit on the presidency made the terms of the party general secretary, the head of army and the president “consistent”.
“It’s a decision that suits China’s situation and ensures long-term stable rule of the party, and a move to make steady the ‘trinity’ of the leader of the Communist Party, of the People’s Republic of China and of the People’s Liberation Army,” it said.
It did not translate into life tenure for leadership offices, the article said, citing Article 38 of the party’s constitution, which rules that out.
Zhang Yesui, spokesman for the first session of the 13th National People’s Congress and vice-foreign minister, also argued in favour of aligning the term limits for the three roles.
“Adopting the same treatment in the constitution for presidential terms helps maintain the authority and leadership of the party with comrade Xi Jinping as its core,” he told a press conference on Sunday. “It helps to strengthen and improve the state’s leadership system.”
People’s Daily also ran commentaries attacking Western-style division of power and party politics as sources of corruption and inefficiency, but Leese said China still needed to think of its international image, “otherwise the path to straightforward one-man rule is just around the corner”.
“However, if only the rules for the head of state are changed and he would step down, at least nominally, from his position as party general secretary, the image of dictatorship might be expelled,” Leese said.
Professor Chen Jieren, from China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, said that while Xi had “made more contributions than previous leaders”, setting term limits was an established norm around the world.
“We must believe there’s more talent in China capable of running the country,” Chen said. “Putting the hopes of China on one or a few would be unrealistic and show a distrust of the Chinese people.
“I hope he will step down from the top position some time in the future, after finding a proper successor, and reintroduce a term limit to the office.”
The Chinese media have been making a case for having a political strongman, including the need to overcome deeply entrenched interest groups to push ahead with reforms, clean up rising debt and tackle corruption, and to end poverty and increase China’s global influence.
Overseas China experts said some of those arguments were valid.
Professor Ezra Vogel, a political scientist at Harvard University, said Xi’s move towards long-term rule was set against resistance from antagonised associates of people targeted by his fight against corruption.
“Xi Jinping has the difficult job of trying to prevent the families of those who were criticised or might be criticised from resisting or gaining power,” he wrote in ChinaFile, an online magazine published by the Asia Society’s Centre on US-China Relations.
“Such concerns must be behind Xi Jinping’s efforts to strengthen his position of authority at the present and in the future.”
Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College in London, also writing in ChinaFile, said Xi’s supreme status in the party was grounded in popular support amid surging nationalist sentiment.
“Xi and his colleagues know they have public support here,” Brown wrote. “What Chinese person in their right might would ever want to see their country returned to the vulnerability of the past?
“With this dynamic vision for the future, Xi can ask for the indulgence of his fellow citizens in granting him whatever status his elite leadership needs. This is important to convey purposefulness, stability, and certainty.”
But Xi’s growing power could also place him in a vulnerable position, Vogel said.
“If power is highly concentrated in one person’s hands over the long term, then any time serious problems arise, as for example from the slowdown of the economy which is likely in the next few years, then the one person will have to accept responsibility for everything,” he wrote.
“Therefore, I think it would be good for China and for Xi personally if Xi could find some way to preserve a system that provides regular procedures for making decisions and selecting new officials.”
That concern is shared by Professor Andrew Nathan, a political scientist at Columbia University.
“The more he consolidates power the more he bears responsibility for success or failure,” Nathan told the Post. “I would add that the risk of mistakes increases the more that people are afraid to question a leader’s policies.”
Xi’s far-reaching anti-corruption campaign has netted 440 officials of ministerial level or above since October 2012, and has seen more generals sacked than the number who died in the wars before the Communist Party seized power in 1949.
Those netted have included senior figures from major political factions and those promoted by former presidents, including former Hu aide Ling Jihua and top generals Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, both promoted to the Central Military Commission by Jiang.
As the campaign rolls on, all key players in major factions, incumbent or retired, have pledged their loyalty to Xi, while Beijing’s massive crackdown on NGOs, rights lawyers and government critics in recent years has silenced dissent among intellectuals.
Apart from a few sarcastic comments that managed to evade China’s censors, there has been little open and straightforward criticism of the scrapping of the presidential term limit heard publicly in China.
Harvard University historian and political scientist Professor Roderick MacFarquhar said the real opinions of Xi among politicians and intellectuals were impossible to measure, given Xi’s power and the emerging personality cult among the broad masses.
“Because of the tighter controls that have been established under Xi, it is not really possible even to guess at the amount of dissent there might be within the party or among the intellectuals,” he said. “Their opposition to these changes in the constitution is irrelevant so long as Xi has the military and the broad masses supporting him.
“It is not Xi’s cult which justifies his rule; rather it is his powerful rule which leads to his cult.”
Shambaugh said Xi wanted to use the decision to send a message to those who were only paying him lip service in terms of loyalty.
“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,” he said.
But being so dominant in the party would raise questions about Xi’s ability to assess his own policies, Robert Daly, director of the Washington-based Kissinger Institute on China, wrote in ChinaFile.
“The silence of intellectuals and local officials will mean that the Communist Party cannot receive timely, accurate policy feedback from China’s many geographic subregions and social and economic constituencies,” he said.
“His cult of personality will grow. Because of this ‘bandwagoning’, the encouragement of party-media, and diminished checks on his actions, Xi will be emboldened domestically and internationally.”
As China was engulfed by Xi’s unchecked rule, it would become more repressive domestically, while the activities of American corporations, NGOs and educational institutions would be even more proscribed, Daly said.
Additional reporting by Nectar Gan