Comprehending the hyperbole of President Xi Jinping

Comprehending the hyperbole of President Xi Jinping

The president has commenced his second term with the former anticorruption tsar as his deputy.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

The National People’s Congress of China has voted to abolish presidential term limits, paving the way for Xi Jinping to further centralise power around his person.

KEY INSIGHTS

– The removal of the primary mechanism facilitating power-sharing within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may galvanise opposition from Xi’s party rivals.
– While the removal of presidential term limits will allow Xi Jinping to maintain his office after 2022, Xi will not pursue a lifetime tenure.
– Xi will seek to increase Chinese assertiveness in its near abroad to distract those who oppose the constitutional amendments.

On March 11, 2018, the national legislative body of the Chinese government — the National People’s Congress (NPC) — voted to pass a series of amendments to the Chinese Constitution which removed term limits on the position of president and solidified incumbent Xi Jinping’s ideology within the fundamental principles of the state. Press releases indicated that of the NPC’s 2,980 deputies, 2,958 voted in favour of the amendments with just two against.

Commentary from mainstream media in the West has criticised the amendments, variously interpreting them as an attempt by Xi to extend his term indefinitely or to emulate the cult of personality of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and even suggest that China’s political climate will regress into a brutal dictatorship akin to North Korea.

Conversely, Chinese state media has extolled how the amendments strengthen the rule of law under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and has denounced Western commentary as attempts to incite fear and interfere with China’s internal politics. Regardless of which interpretation turns out to be correct, Xi will have to govern intelligently to avoid policy missteps resulting from this centralisation of power.

CONSTITUTIONAL CONCERNS

Within the CCP there exists a constant rivalry between two groups. Xi belongs to a group of elites known as the “princelings”, which consists of leaders from veteran revolutionary lineages. They are economic liberals who represent China’s entrepreneurs and middle class and support initiatives such as private ownership of property and the private sector. Leading figures in the opposing faction, the populist “Tuanpai coalition”, originate from the Chinese Communist Youth League and often voice the concerns of the urban poor and farmers.

The passage of the constitutional amendments on March 11 was the cumulation of Xi’s consolidation of power since his appointment as CCP General Secretary and President in 2012. Xi and his allies have systematically strengthened their position within the CCP by purging opposition officials from positions of power using anti-corruption campaigns.

From Xi’s perspective, the removal of term limits is a necessary stabilising influence on China’s economic development moving forward. China sits at an unsavoury debt to GDP ratio of 255.9%: critical reforms to its services sectors lag behind, reduced demand for construction materials and lowered production inputs are feeding into overcapacity within the heavy industrial sectors, and capital flight is fuelling growing concern over the sustainability of China’s economic practices. For Xi, a prolonged period of singular leadership will provide the necessary long-term stability for China to see through comprehensive reform agendas. This includes pursuing painful but necessary economic liberalisation reforms in China’s bloated and debt-ridden state sector, fixing the fiscal system to counter local government debt, and implementing property taxes to prevent housing bubbles.

MOUNTING OPPOSITION

BRICS leaders meeting / China term limits

Photo: The Kremlin

The removal of term limits has been vocally opposed by the wider public since its reveal last month. Across the Chinese internet, netizens on China’s popular internet services Weibo expressed their immediate dissatisfaction and dismay at the prospect of Xi remaining president indefinitely. Chinese government censors were overwhelmed by a tide of online criticism for several hours after the February 25 announcement, an indication that such levels of criticism were wholly unanticipated. The resulting heightened level of internet censorship will persist from this period onwards, enabled by the enactment of the 2016 Cybersecurity Law, with the purpose of safeguarding Xi’s reputation and enhancing his grip on power.

The limit of two five-year presidential terms was established by Deng Xiaoping as part of a power-sharing framework and was intended to limit factionalist conflict within the CCP. The erasure of this framework and possibility of an indefinite leadership may embolden and unite Xi’s rivals and critics. Indeed, the degree of opposition to Xi has been demonstrated by revelations of an attempted coup against him by prominent CCP members (now purged) including Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang and Sun Zhengcai. As Xi has effectively removed the possibility of leadership from opposing factions for the next decade or more and stifled their ability to express discontent within the boundaries of the party, the possibility of vocal and violent opposition will multiply.

Given that the removal of term limits has vitiated the power-sharing arrangement between the CCP factions, Xi has opened the doors to the unknown and the possibility now exists for future Chinese leaders to draw upon precedent for lifelong leadership. However, the removal of term limits alone does not necessarily mean that Xi will remain president until his death. Rather, he will likely seek to remain in power until he is satisfied that China has realised its national “rejuvenation”.

Xi may further elect to respond to concerns over the constitutional amendments by publicly declaring his aversion to a lifelong leadership position. But this seems unlikely, given the level of secrecy surrounding the removal of term limits. Doing so would also amount to a compromise, which could embolden his critics.

INCREASED ASSERTIVENESS ABROAD

/ China term limits

As a watershed moment in modern Chinese history, Xi’s consolidation of power domestically will likely be translated into foreign policy. Xi will seek to increase China’s assertiveness in international affairs to distract domestic opposition, consolidate his leadership, and achieve his “Chinese Dream”.

There exist a number of avenues for Beijing to make its presence felt such as increasing its military posturing in the East and South China Seas, ramping up its rhetorical opposition to growing ties between Taiwan and the US, intensifying cyberattacks targeting geopolitical rivals, and clamping-down further on pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong.

What is clear is that an indefinite leadership position will enable Xi to move more boldly and transition China away from its longstanding foreign policy strategy under Deng Xiaoping of “hide your capacity, bide your time”, towards Xi’s policy of “striving for achievement”.

With the removal of term limits, it is expected that the stability and predictability of lifelong tenure within leadership will be conducive to economic development. This is premised upon Xi’s determination to continue the successes of the Belt and Road Initiative and achieve his Dual Centenaries of transforming China into a “moderately well-off society” by 2020 and a “democratic, civilised, harmonious, and modern socialist country” by 2049.

While potentially damaging to the rule of law, the prospect of indefinite leadership is unlikely to have a significant detrimental impact on near-term economic prospects or investments. However, the prospect of a lifelong dictatorship presents the possibility of increased errors in policy and economic stagnation should Xi refuse to consider advice and opposing opinions from within the party.