The early decades of China’s economic expansion and opening-up fostered a comforting feeling in Western circles that the world’s most populous nation would “become more like us” as it bred a middle class which would espouse democratic values. That illusion is now being demolished by a leader who has reverted to a traditional autocratic style of rule, underlined this week by a move to enable him to stay in office for as long as he wishes.
Far from conforming to the Western model, the last major state on earth ruled by a communist party is increasingly intent on forging its own path; ready, as its main official newspaper wrote earlier this year, to take advantage of what it sees as the weakness of democratic capitalism. Leading that charge is Xi Jinping, the country’s most powerful leader since the first Communist chieftain, Mao Zedong. As he accumulates ever-growing power, sidelines real or potential foes and has his “Thoughts” written into the country’s constitution, the 64-year-old Xi is echoing in 21st century form the ruling style of China’s millennia of history.
The announcement that the Communist Party ended the 10-year limit on the president’s time in office is the latest evidence of how Xi is concentrating and expanding his authority. The proposal, which was rubber-stamped by the annual plenary session of the Chinese legislature, is not as important as it may sound in terms of power. The position of president of the People’s Republic is in no way comparable to the similar post in the United State or France. The two other main jobs Xi fills — General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chair of the Central Military Commission — are more important, and he supplements them by heading a set of committees on matters ranging from economic reform to cyber security. But, crucially, the president represents the nation abroad and this has become important for Xi as he seeks to bolster China’s global role with frequent state visits, the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative and other programmes to spread influence.
The presidency is also important for a second reason, which goes to the heart of Xi’s imperial project. Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader who launched economic reform after the death of Mao, tried to start a process under which the Communist Party and the Chinese state would play different, distinct roles. The former would look after ideology and the broad direction of the nation while the latter got on with the business of government. All too aware of the perils of the kind of indefinite, one-man rule from which the People’s Republic had suffered so grievously under Mao, Deng also introduced limits of two five-year terms on the top jobs and encouraged an orderly succession process.
Now, the man referred to as the “core leader” is undoing that institutional framework. In his first five years in office, Xi has steadily expanded the reach of the Communist Party into areas such as economic policy that were formerly the preserve of the government. The coming legislative meeting looks likely to agree to the appointment of senior Party figures to key government positions. A draconian anti-corruption campaign is about to be extended from the Party to state employees. At the Communist Congress in October, which gave him a second five-year stint as General Secretary and military chief, Xi did not follow the usual practice of naming a younger figure as the chosen successor.
The removal of the term limit on the presidency from the constitution will act as a template for the other top jobs which, though nothing was written down, were also bound by a 10-year limit. It is the logical follow-through on Xi’s first-term accumulation of authority and the way in which he has elided himself with the ruling party and the nation. That is the all-embracing imperial way. Far from “becoming more like us”, the rising superpower is reverting to its own model, made confident by economic growth, rejecting foreign ways and values, and exploiting vacuums left by the Trump administration as it pursues the “China Dream” of national strengthening and rejuvenation laid out by its new helmsman.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Jonathan Fenby is a noted journalist and the China Chairman of the TSLombard research service.