Our giant neighbour is now a full-blown autocracy, capable of destabilising every democratic platform in the region
Sunday’s vote by the National People’s Congress of China to end a constitutional two-term limit on the presidency represents a risky step, both in terms of domestic development and international stature. By enabling Xi Jinping to remain leader of the world’s most populous nation, possibly for life, the legislature has shifted foreign perceptions of China for the worse.
Successive Chinese leaders have recognised the inherent danger of concentrating power in one supreme leader’s hands, an arrangement that’s been scrupulously avoided since the era of Mao Zedong. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the death toll was staggering. Xi, then a teenager, suffered. His father, a senior party official, was purged and physically abused. Surely Xi is well aware the danger of having too powerful a leader, and yet Sunday’s constitutional amendment could turn him into another Mao.
President Xi has just begun his second five-year term, which will continue into 2023. While it’s impossible to predict what the future holds for him or how long he might cling to power, the consensus among observers, including some Chinese intellectuals, is that no one would dare challenge the wishes of any leader who remains in control for more than 10 years.
Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao after similarly withering during the Cultural Revolution, introduced the presidential term limit as a restraint on individual power. The strength of China’s collective leadership has lessened in the years since, but the term limits certainly helped block anyone else from forming a personal autocracy like Mao’s. At worst, given the absence of challengers to the country’s single ruling party, the jettisoning of the limits could be an invitation to tyranny. Only the checks and balances that the party itself can apply stand in the way.
Xi is both president – with the authority to declare war and states of emergency – and secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party, which controls everything in the country, including the military. He is also chairman of the committee overseeing military affairs. And, with terms limits off, he can remain in these posts as long as he wants, barring an almost unthinkable “palace coup”.
Efforts have been underway for years to establish a cult of personality around Xi, of the type that Mao enjoyed in his heyday. The National Assembly has also formally enshrined “Xi thought” in the constitution, where it joins the philosophies espoused by Mao and Deng. Xi thought focuses on a concept called “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, which he envisions guiding China for the rest of the century.
By placing Xi on the same lofty pedestal and the revered Mao and Deng, the assembly presented him to the world as China’s unquestioned and omnipotent representative. All the more reason for the international community to remain wary of Chinese intentions. Its supreme leader clearly sees himself as undertaking an historic mission to make China the greatest country in the world. With such extensive autocratic powers now in his own hands, he is more a force to be reckoned with than ever. We are already concerned at how China is consolidating its mutually beneficial relations with other authoritarian states in Southeast Asia. The coronation of a new dictator in China bodes ill for democracy in this region.