Xi Jinping’s push to repeal the term limits of the Chinese presidency – a plan to be discussed and, no doubt, approved at the National People’s Congress in Beijing in early March – is the latest development to be seized on by those who suggest China is in the grip of an emerging autocracy.
Another such moment came at the 19th Party Congress last October, when the lack of a successor to Xi became clear. Bit by bit the signs seem to be adding up, supporting the idea of a Xi leadership fortified against any threat or change, with the leader sitting in the midst of everything, able to control and dispense orders at will.
Despite the temptation, however, it is always good to resist the most obvious story. As in physics, so in Chinese politics: manifest reality – the things one sees and hears on the surface – is often a poor guide to what is really going on. For that, we need to remember history, think of the objectives that are being pursued, and bear in mind the immense complexity, within both China and the surrounding world it is trying to be such a major part of.
In all of this, there is one thing we need to bear in mind about the Xi leadership. The past five years have been good ones. The outside world has been the source of some of this good fortune. Europe remains preoccupied and weakened – and perhaps always will. The rise of nationalist parties has been kept in check, but in Italy, Austria, and across Eastern Europe, things still look worrying. Extremism is at bay – but not conquered. And it could easily become resurgent. The Middle East remains perpetually troubled. And in the White House sits a president seen by many of even his own countrymen as antagonistic to the very system he is meant to be the defender of. China can fill this world almost at will, slowly, quietly annexing space and taking opportunity. Under Xi, it has the leader with the persona and the message to do that effectively.
This has brought Xi dividends domestically. Who can truly oppose him when there is such a staggering opportunity for China, and at the moment he is reading the runes right. Xi’s instincts have so far proved winners – being more assertive regarding the environment, supporting free trade, carrying on working with everyone, being pushy over things for which one is expected to be pushy (South and East China Sea, Taiwan) and collaborating everywhere else.
With a less impressive run of luck, the Xi leadership might be much more modest and conventional. But the Communist Party trains its leaders to be pragmatic, and to grasp opportunities. And at the moment, there is what seems like a constant golden harvest of fortune. At times like this, as in any context whatever the cultural specificities, one accrues, banks, saves, for the rainy squalls that could appear at any time, and, when luck runs out, become torrents and hurricanes. So much of what the Xi leadership has been doing is banking political capital, consolidating, readying itself for the moment when things are less favourable. A few years ago, suggesting a constitutional change along the lines proposed this year would have been deeply contentious. These days, it is accepted domestically as a price worth paying for a leadership the heavens seem to be smiling on. Chinese people love the luck the Xi leadership has brought. For most, they are wealthier, healthier, and better placed in the world than ever before. The Centenary goal looms, with the drama of a strong, powerful China becoming even more imminent and real. Whether in their hearts they care much for the party and its culture, its history, and its controlling nature is another matter. At the moment, though, the deal is holding. And Xi and his colleagues can seemingly stash away all the trinkets of power they wish. People are too busy lapping up the good things to bother asking tricky questions.
Will those trinkets matter much when the harder times come? In the great Ming classic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written seven centuries before, the start testifies to the ways in which Chinese history has always been a series of ups and downs, breakups followed by unity followed by breakups. Were there to be turbulence or worse in the years ahead – a decline in wealth, an international conflict, or worse – the notion of a perpetual Chinese presidency might look less compelling, not only for the ruled, but those ruling. The simple fact, however, is that at the National People’s Congress in 2018, we will continue to see a country celebrating its run of luck.
We know what that kind of China looks like – we have been watching it every day for the past five years. A China needing to call on its inner reserves of resilience, and face less favourable conditions is not a place we have seen for quite some time. Nor has it been experienced by most of the young Chinese to whom Xi’s nationalist message appeals. The best we can do at the moment is to acknowledge that a lucky China looks like it is going well under Xi, and reserve judgment on how things will fare, and how these leaders will use the power they have banked in the past few years, when the tougher weather comes. About that China, we, and Chinese leaders, know next to nothing at all – until it happens. ■
Kerry Brown is director of the Lau China Institute, King’s College, London