The National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s rubber-stamp legislative body, approved the removal of presidential term limits on Sunday, meaning Xi Jinping can potentially remain president for life.
Aside from value judgments about a lack of rule of law in the Asian country, as well as the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime, Xi’s elevation as the most powerful ruler after Communist China’s founder Mao Zedong will pose two risks. The first is a quite likely messy transition of power down the line. The other is Xi’s possible use of military initiatives as weapons of mass distraction in a time of internal crisis.
The abolition of the limit of two five-year terms for the presidency caps Xi’s repeated maneuvers to cement his power. He already has no time limits for his more important roles as secretary general of the Communist Party of China and chairman of the Central Military Commission. He is the CPC’s “core” and has his political philosophy – “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” – inscribed into both the party and national constitutions.
The NPC also ratified a measure to establish a new powerful anti-corruption agency. This could be used by the Chinese president to continue to purge his possible rivals within the party and the state institutions.
With another amendment to the country’s constitution, Xi managed to strengthen the party to the detriment of the state, a deviation from late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s efforts to eliminate the Cultural Revolution’s main distortion, the blurring of lines between the party and the state that led to the one-man rule of Chairman Mao.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s almost absolute control of his country’s politics for nearly two decades may give a hint of what Xi’s rising status could trigger both internally and externally.
Chaotic transition of power
Chinese officialdom says the expansion of Xi’s power is driven by the need to ensure stability for the country, which faces huge economic, social and geopolitical challenges. The political mantra in Beijing is that only Xi’s leadership can allow the Asian giant to become a global superpower by 2049, the centenary of the People’s Republic of China.
But this move actually risks provoking more instability in the longer term. Reliance on a “paramount leader” could nip prospective rulers in the bud in the absence of some sort of check on power like the succession mechanism designed by Deng. Plainly said, the departure of an all-powerful Xi could leave a political vacuum that is hard to fill, just like in Putin’s Russia.
Russian nationalist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, himself a vocal supporter of the Kremlin’s proactive foreign policy, recently told Italian public TV broadcaster RAI that after Putin’s retirement or demise, Russia could enter a prolonged period of instability, given that Putin has politically eliminated any credible alternative to himself, breeding a class of subservient and corrupt leaders.
The second problem of Xi’s indefinite tenure has to do with external dynamics. Should China face economic turmoil during his protracted rule, the president could be tempted to resort to Putin’s so-far-successful strategy of leveraging on the country’s nationalist sentiment, producing a “rally-around-the-flag effect.” The aim is to distract people’s attention from internal socio-economic woes and refocus it on military adventures abroad, blaming foreign enemies for the difficulties the nation is faced with.
In this respect, an embattled Xi at home could try to rally domestic support by increasing China’s military pressure on Taiwan and in the East and South China Seas. Putin did this masterfully with Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and the deployment of Russian forces in Syria to save the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s longtime ally. Two military operations used to reduce the psychological impact of a stagnant economy on Russian citizens and keep Putin’s approval rating high.
Xi’s “leadership for life” raises questions over the future course of action in Beijing. His accumulation of power could lead to unintended consequences, undermining a political system that he is actually keen to fortify, and ramping up China’s trust deficit with neighbors and the US-led Western camp.