Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters
Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters

On March 11 – the day the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s rubber-stamp parliament, approved the controversial proposal to end presidential term limits – some of the country’s main news outlets vehemently attacked “Western” criticism of the constitutional amendment.

The Global Times editorialized: “Western opinion basically held that the constitutional change was China’s internal matter [… but] there are still some in the West that are keen on grabbing attention by comparing the amendment to Western political systems.”

The tabloid, published by the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC), said those Western critics “have evaded two facts.” First, “the amendment is primarily driven by China’s internal needs for development.” Second, it is pursued because of the Chinese people’s awareness of “the harsh reality that the Western political system doesn’t apply to developing countries and produces dreadful results.”

The China Daily, another influential state-run outlet, adopted a harsher tone. It deplored those [in the West] who criticized China’s move, depicting them as “shameless”, “malicious”, “ignorant” and “short-sighted” “naysayers” partly because it asserted that contrary to what “some people in the West insist” the change does not “imply lifetime tenure for any leader.”

Despite their assertively expressed arguments, these state-run papers have been unable to convince critics. They even invite more criticism because the facts point to the contrary of what they assert.

It’s true that the removal of the two-term presidential limit doesn’t necessarily mean Xi Jinping, who already holds two more influential posts, namely party chief and army head, that have no term limits, will rule China indefinitely. However, it’s undeniable that the constitutional change was primarily aimed at allowing the 64-year-old strongman to remain at the helm after 2023 when he would have been constitutionally required to step down.

With the term limits officially abolished, coupled with many other recent or current unprecedented developments in China, Xi reigning supreme over the world’s most populous country for an indefinite period, even for life, is a real prospect.

For instance, before 2012, when Xi came to power, members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the CPC’s – and the PRC’s – apex of power, were traditionally assured of a safe retirement. But under Xi’s huge anti-graft campaign, Zhou Yongkang, a former PSC official and some of his family members and associates were targeted. Other high-profile officials, including two members of the Politburo, the second-highest decision-making body, were purged.

By breaking with precedent and creating a lot of enemies during his anti-corruption crackdown, widely seen as disproportionately aimed at members of rival political factions, it’s no longer certain that Xi and his family and close aides will be safe should he step down in 10 or 15 years. This will likely force him to stay in power for life.

Such a real and daunting prospect has sparked comparisons not to Western political systems but to Mao Zedong’s lifetime rule or other autocratic regimes in other countries, such as North Korea, China’s totalitarian communist neighbor. What’s more, those comparisons were made not only by Westerners but also by Chinese themselves.

Immediately after Xinhua, China’s official news agency, made the stunning announcement about the constitutional change on February 25, some Chinese netizens suggested that their nation was becoming North Korea or following the example of their regressive neighbor.

Their fear quickly turned out to be justified. Facing a widespread backlash against the move on social media, the Chinese government launched a forceful censorship campaign. As widely reported, on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, search terms such as “disagree,” “lifelong” and “Xi Zedong” were banned. Even the memes of Winnie the Pooh, the cartoon bear that resembles the portly Xi, and the letter “N” faced the same fate.

Under Xi’s watch, there is no space for public dissent, discontent and disapproval of the party – or more precisely, Xi himself – no matter what form it takes

All of this indicates that under Xi’s watch, there is no space for public dissent, discontent and disapproval of the party – or more precisely, Xi himself – no matter what form it takes. All the 1.4 billion people of China can do is obey. In fact, not only the Chinese populace but also the party’s hierarchy and the country’s elites must meekly submit to Xi.

The proposal to remove the two-term presidential limit was, without doubt, hugely consequential as it could reshape China in a fundamental, and potentially dangerous, way in the years to come. Still, only two members of the NPC, which is officially “the supreme organ of state power in China,” voted against it whilst 2,958 people (or 99.8%) voted in favor. This means, though it didn’t get 100% of the vote as is often the case in North Korea, it was very close.

Thus, while it remains very improbable, if not impossible, that China will turn into a North Korea under Xi’s supreme reign, it is politically becoming more like its repressive neighbor – at least more so than five or ten years ago. This doesn’t bode well for the country’s future.

If establishing the Western political (democratic, multi-party]) system in developing countries “produces dreadful results” as the Global Times assumes, pursuing one-man, lifetime rule produces even more catastrophic outcomes.

In many cases, as pointed out, from North Korea to Congo, one-man dictatorship tends to result in economic stagnation, political dysfunction, or military confrontation. In some cases, such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, lifetime rule ends badly for the ruler as well.

For the China Daily, those who hold such views “revel in their ignorance of China’s reality.” But, the calamities that the Asian country suffered itself during Mao Zedong’s 27-year absolute rule are the evidence political scientists and China watchers usually cite to illustrate their arguments.

More significantly, those analysts who raise concerns about Xi’s power grab, his potentially lifelong rule, and their consequences are not all “Westerners” living far away who “hold fast to their mean, even malicious predisposition toward China’s political system out of their irrational, subjective and unprofessional ideological bias.” Several of them, including Steve Tsang, the author of China in the Xi Jinping Era, and Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based newspaper now owned by the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, are close to and well-informed about China.

Also, they probably voice their opinions because they are genuinely concerned that Xi’s power will be unchecked, his personality cult will be expanded and the CPC’s main institutions, such as the 7-strong PSC and the 25-member Politburo, will be sidelined.

Xi could become a personalist dictatorship, and this will be bad not only for the world’s second-largest economy but also the world at large.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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