Xi’s Gotta Have It
China’s president seems to have total control—and may keep it for a very long time
it was a bland, bureaucratic
statement—but its implications could be profound. In late February, China’s Communist Party announced a proposal to abolish term limits for its highest office. The party hasn’t made a final decision, but the news seemed to confirm what many have long suspected: Xi Jinping, the country’s leader, wants to be president for life.
The announcement wasn’t surprising, but many didn’t expect it to come so soon. Aside from being president, Xi is also the general secretary of the Communist Party and commander in chief of the country’s armed forces. The term limits on his presidency effectively constrain his ability to hold the other two jobs. Since Xi took office in March 2013, he’s been consumed with his fight against corruption. This battle is basically a proxy for him and his allies to consolidate control over the highest levels of the party, as well as big state-owned companies. In Chinese politics, personal rivalries and differing agendas are rarely visible to the outside world. So many had assumed Xi’s fight was still ongoing, given how deeply entrenched corruption is in China.
If the party does decide to end term limits for president, which are now two consecutive five-year terms, it could have major implications for the nation—and the world. Domestically, it would rupture what has been a stable system of succession. Deng Xiaoping, the father of China’s economic reforms, created that system in 1982. Prior to Deng’s rule, China was mired in the chaos and pain of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong “had absolute power over the lives and deaths of others,” wrote Mo Zhixu, a China-based political commentator.
Post-mao, Deng and his successors transformed China from an isolated, impoverished country into the second most powerful nation in the world. Many believe the country will inevitably surpass the United States in terms of influence and economic growth.
But Beijing has experienced these changes during a period of relative stability, when political transitions came to be seen as orderly and predictable. Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, handed power to Hu Jintao, who after a decade turned the party
“Over the past 36 years, China has gone from an impoverished, developing country into the second most powerful nation the world.”
over to Xi. That predictability is now in question.
What’s not in question is that Xi wants to increase his country’s clout, to show the world that his model of government is a worthy alternative to those of the West. Despite American resistance, Xi shows no sign of backing away from his efforts to dominate in the South and East China Seas. He has also extended his country’s influence to the south and west, all the way to Pakistan, with his efforts to build infrastructure in developing nations.
Xi believes that the world should accommodate China, not the other way around. He shows no interest in deposing North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, despite Pyongyang’s nuclear antics, and will likely respond in kind to any American trade protections, like the ones the U.S. announced for steel and aluminum in early March.
After a decade of dithering, China is also finally trying to carry out some painful and necessary economic reforms. Some of Xi’s supporters believe he needs more time and more authority to implement them. The Chinese president may realize it’s going to take a while to reduce his country’s debt, which will lead to a slowdown in growth. Maybe he wants to manage that process. This is the most optimistic view of the party’s announcement: that eventually, if the economy is humming and has a lower debt burden, perhaps Xi can hand over power to a designated successor and be remembered as a hero. Such a scenario is possible. But it assumes the Chinese leader is willing to oversee such a sustained and painful economic transition. It also assumes he’d ever give up power.
In the West, many analysts seemed jaded after Beijing’s announcement —especially those who had hoped China would reform politically as its economy prospered (just as South Korea and Taiwan had in the 1980s). These observers finally seem to be accepting reality. China is now a more confident, more repressive authoritarian state than it was before Xi. His increased crackdown on anyone critical of the government, as well as his use of internet censorship and technology to monitor citizens the regime deems troublesome, are here to stay. And may even increase.
Despite China’s economic successes, there are still millions in the country who want more political freedom. But under this regime, they have no voice—and won’t, it appears, for a long time. At 64 years old, the apparently healthy Xi isn’t going anywhere.
He’s now, most likely, China’s emperor for life.