The year is 1966. Chairman Mao Zedong has issued a statement urging the Chinese people to purge society of ‘monsters and demons’, effectively supporting the mass murder of millions of Chinese intellectuals, perceived corrupt Party officials, and innocent civilians. In this first year, 1800 people died and in the coming years, hundreds of thousands more would meet the same end. Mao’s encouragement of a personality cult, the cultivation of his image as an idol to be worshipped, spurred the violent fervour and subdued any opposition to his decisions. In recent years, the CCP has rejected open discussion of the Cultural Revolution, but has on occasion acknowledged the flawed policies and tyrannical exercises led by Mao. Former leader Deng Xiaoping, succeeding Mao upon his death in 1976, understood the dangers resulting from Chinese politicians’ endorsement of a cult of personality, and enacted new policies that established a rules-based system for succession creating term limits. He left behind a word of warning to anyone that attempts to dismantle the collective leadership and distributed power of the Politburo Standing Committee. Despite Deng’s best wishes, the cyclical nature of history has again reared its head in the name of autocracy. It is now 2018. President Xi Jinping has backed an initiative within the CCP to abolish term limits. Out of 2964 ballots, only 3 delegates chose to abstain or oppose the amendment, providing Xi with an uncontested mandate to lead China into the next several decades. Xi has yet to name a successor, a fact analysts believe is a good indication that he aspires to become ‘Mao Zedong of the 21st century’. What are the characteristics of this man, or conditions of China’s political environment that resulted in support for this power play? How have reactions from Chinese citizens and foreign observers differed? In what ways will this move affect China’s foreign relations? What is clear is that the answers to these questions do not affect the obvious: President Xi Jinping is here to stay.
Xi Jinping was born amid the chaos of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was removed from his position within the CCP and sent to work at a labour camp. His sister took her own life, despairing of the world around her. He is considered to be one of China’s ‘princelings’, ‘the sons and daughters of former revolutionary leaders who have risen into high positions within the party’. Despite Xi Jinping’s harsh beginnings and first-hand experience with the brutality of that period, he has chosen to selectively utilize some of the political tools cultivated by Mao. Since assuming power, Xi has embarked on an enormous corruption crack-down, planting the seed in the minds of the people that there are corrupt and treacherous CCP officials that need expulsion. Through finding an internal ‘enemy’, Xi has provided something for Chinese people to fear and in turn the need to look to Xi for Party leadership and guidance. Xi’s ultimate goal is to enforce the belief that the people must pledge unconditional loyalty to the Party, as he is the Party. Critics viewed this as a means of neutralizing his political opponents.
As a person, Xi Jinping is a force unto himself. A political heavyweight, he carries the gravitas of a man who has experienced Mao’s China, a self-destructing entity with a violent ideological battleground, and has used this to best govern China, propelling the country into the future. His successes include reducing poverty, strengthening the economy, and providing the increased prosperity for the Chinese people that ultimately supports his mandate to lead. Xi has taken steps to gradually climb the ladder of power consolidation. Prior to becoming president, Xi held authoritative roles within the military and became general secretary of the CCP. The unification of these three positions within one man served to further augment his authority. In October 2017, the 19th Party Congress enshrined Xi’s political thinking through the inclusion of ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. He is the only Chinese leader other than Mao to codify his political approach into law, and the only one still to do so while still holding office. This placed his governance on a pedestal, paving the way for the March 2018 vote to abolish term limits.
In most democratically-inclined countries, one can look to the press to gauge the population’s reaction to political events. In China, free press is non-existent and state-run publications dominate the realm of media; journalists are wielded to Xi’s advantage. Central to securing the party’s grasp on power, their output tows the party line and dissent is rare. According to them, the Chinese public wholeheartedly support the constitutional changes. However, a lone dissenter, Li Datong, former editor of the state-run China Youth Daily, believes this move is not in the public interest and could trigger political infighting down the line. Since the 1980s when Deng Xiaoping reigned in political ambition through term limits, Party leaders could resign themselves to knowing their colleagues faced similar restrictions. From now onwards, friction between members may intensify and it is yet to be seen when the term limit abolishment is exceptional in its application, or whether there may be a domino effect down the ranks. Additionally, high ranking CCP colleagues may be disinclined to voice opposing positions or grievances over policy and political choices, silencing different opinions and potentially leading to poorer quality policy-making.
Not only have Chinese journalists sang the praises of Xi’s leadership, both past and seemingly indefinite, they claim that the West is ignorant to how the removal of term limits will advance political efficacy and benefit the public. China Daily draws upon modern history by stating that the West’s main desire is ‘to impose upon China the political standards with which they are familiar and which favour their interests’. Unfortunately witnessed in relations between the West and the Middle East, the Chinese do have legs to stand on in this regard. Although a powerful case against the credibility of Western criticism, many Western sovereignties have remained largely silent on Xi’s abolition of term limits. Although most of these foreign governments may disagree with the decision on principle, they can appreciate the strength and direction in Xi’s governance. In an international system consisting of Brexit, a fractured Middle East and an America receding from the world state, the West recognizes that a stable, autocratic China is better than an unstable China.
Foreign relations between China and the West will not be terribly impacted by this news. Given the previous steps taken by Xi to ensure power consolidation, this was an unsurprising move. Already aware of Xi’s core objectives, his actions going forward will continue to have a degree of predictability. However, the states that will be most impacted will be the East Asian neighbourhood. The Financial Times reported that Xi’s greater concentration of power may threaten Taiwan’s attempt to maintain de facto independence and Hong Kong’s desire to govern semi-democratically. Chinese liberals often rely on the help of the international community to express a distaste for many of the CPP’s policies and to apply pressure, influencing the Chinese government to behave otherwise. The ‘One-China Policy’ is likely to stand the test of time over the next couple decades. Not only will Xi feel empowered to reign both places in with a tighter grip, but Western and democratic states usually more inclined to provide pushback on the Chinese government on behalf of Taiwan and Hong Kong will less likely want to do so.
The abolition of the term limit amendment enacted by Deng Xiaoping is a disappointing step back from the collective leadership that has guided China into the present day as a force to be reckoned with. The cult of personality intends to persist within the higher ranks of politics within the Middle Kingdom, and with Xi’s status elevated to that of ‘demi-god Mao, even his most trusted aids would not dare challenge Xi’s decisions’. Whether Xi’s extended policy continuity will provide public and political benefits is still to be seen, but we should expect a stronger President facing less opposition to his agenda. The international community is often silent on matters upon which are in their interest and the strong leadership of Xi Jinping in a progressively volatile world is no exception.