WALKING AROUND the streets of Beijing, it is hard not to notice one particular face, slightly pudgy and aging, on a bulk of posters rife with socialist slogans. It takes a glance at the front page of any local newspaper to be updated on the latest endeavors of one of the world’s most powerful rulers. This man, President Xi Jinping, recently removed the two-term limit on the Chinese presidency, allowing himself to rule China as its lifelong leader. In other words, China is preparing to embrace a new political era shaped by the limitless power of Xi Jinping.
After assuming office in 2012, President Xi Jinping has been dominating Chinese politics while being hailed as its paramount leader. Over the past six years, Xi’s drive and ambitions to rejuvenate China have become apparent through the centralization of his power. Instances of the President’s power ascension include the crushing of political dissent and the inclusion of Xi’s ideology in the party’s constitution, alongside names such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Now that the removal of presidential term limits eliminates any restraints on Xi’s aspirations to become China’s lifelong leader, the international community finds itself consumed by debate.
Dominating the front pages
The disclosure of China’s biggest constitutional change since 1982 brought about a variety of dissenting responses to the state’s future under Xi, ranging from “darkness and fear” to “full-blown dictatorship.” Yet unlike foreign media outlets, China’s domestic news sources shed a different light on the constitutional amendment, one that appears to remain unnoticed internationally. The Global Times, an international China-based tabloid newspaper, denotes the removal of term limits as “an essential insurance for China to advance.” Accordingly, Xi Jinping is designated as its main agent, bearing responsibility for China’s political and economic revival. However, what does the phrase “an essential insurance for China to advance” signify?
Grounds of justification (proponents of Xi)
In order to understand and answer the question posed, grasping China’s political structure is required. The governmental framework of the Communist Part of China (CPC) is headed by a triumvirate of positions, all of which are held by Xi Jinping. Two of these positions, General Secretary of the Central Committee and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, have no term limits. Thus, the removal of the two-term limit for the third position—President of China—is said to realign and unify the triadic system; thereby, stabilizing China’s institutional leadership.
Now, even though the party stresses that this change does not guarantee Xi’s lifelong tenure, experts of The Guardian state that there is little reason to doubt that this will not be the case. According to the party, the Chinese public have shown overwhelming support and trust towards both the amendment and the leadership of Xi Jinping. Due to the absence of public opinion polls to back this up, however, this statement is internationally met with bountiful criticism. Nevertheless, it might help to remember that China’s political culture has always been shaped by one-man rule.
From ancient dynastical rule to leadership under Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, strong individual leaders appear inherent to Chinese historical legacy. These leaders have often gained political legitimacy with their firm rule and far-reaching goals to transform Chinese society. The two former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, however, adhered to Deng’s constitutional reforms, which constrained the leaders from becoming overly powerful. One of these reforms included the ruling out of lifelong tenure in Communist Party leadership. As is clear by now, Xi Jinping has not followed up on this resolution, given the removal of the two-term limit. Because of this and other breaches of Deng’s reforms, he has overshadowed the power Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao enjoyed, while paving the way for the revival of strong and assertive Chinese leadership.
By tackling political dissidents and addressing corruption, Xi has enforced the discipline and efficacy of the Communist Party. By proposing new initiatives to bolster China’s economic growth, he has shown his drive to transform China economically and increase its global influence. Think, for instance, about China’s “One Belt One Road” strategy, as advocated by the Xinhua News Agency: an extensive plan aiming to connect China with the Middle East, Europe and Africa through a network of roads, rails and seaways. Yet, these ambitious ideas are not the only ways in which Xi puts himself on the map. To strengthen both his personal and the party’s political power, state-party intimacy is fostered by means of intense propagandizing.
Slogans from the Communist Party, such as “united by one heart,” are found on posters on every corner of the street, often accompanied by an idolized image of Xi himself. The message that the government wants to convey relates to Xi’s “Chinese Dream,” which essentially defines the promise of domestic prosperity, paving China’s way to becoming a global superpower. In other words, a better life awaits all Chinese citizens as long as they have faith in the Communist Party and most importantly, in Xi Jinping as its leading figure. The personal cult he has created is subject to much disapproval, but undeniably contributes to his popularity and well-supported vision for China’s future.
The other side
The aforementioned descriptions of Xi Jinping should give the reader some insight into the reasons for China’s confidence in its leader and his direction for China’s future. Still, it should be noted that the power grab is internationally met with much condemnation. Political activists have particularly lambasted Xi for his rejection of the resolutions created by former president Deng Xiaoping. These measures were designed to prevent repeating the disastrous events that took place under Mao Zedong’s regime. Now that Xi has held these laws in contempt, resemblances with Mao are being pointed out, instigating fear of an uncertain future for China where civil liberties are threatened under an authoritarian government.
In response to the fear, critics, notably those of the Washington Post, have denounced analogies comparing Xi with autocrats such as President Vladimir Putin and Leader Kim Jong-un, given that Xi functions within a “well-institutionalized and resilient party system where competence remains an essential criterion.” It is needless to say that Xi Jinping finds himself in a new context, where only time will determine the outcomes of his powerful rule. Thus far, China has experienced an increasingly powerful economy, military and Communist Party under Xi Jinping, legitimizing his leadership. The recent constitutional change should therefore not be a complete surprise, particularly given the CCP’s party structure and China’s political history.
Nevertheless, China’s potential future under the lifelong tenure of Xi Jinping offers an interesting modern-day experiment, where single-handed decisions by China’s helmsman will likely lead to massive ramifications both in domestic China and on the international stage. The international arena will have to brace itself for a power-hungry China looking to centralize its influence as it already has on the political mainland. In fact, a new balance of powers in the world system, shaped by the economic and strategic face-off between China and the United States, appears to be just around the corner.