On the 17 March 2018, the National People’s Congress of China reappointed Xi Jinping as President of the People’s Republic of China, with no limit on the number of terms that he is allowed to serve, thus potentially cementing his power for years to come. Xi is following the footsteps of other authoritarian leaders such as President Putin and President Erdogan, of becoming president for life, which sets a dangerous precedent.
In some ways, President Xi epitomises the Chinese Dream; from being a cave-dwelling farmer during Mao’s Cultural Revolution he has become one of the most powerful men in the world. Xi already has a stronger legacy than his predecessor, Hu Jintao, who was moderately ambitious but was limited by external circumstances. Jintao prioritised China maintaining economic growth in light of the global financial crash of 2008, whilst ignoring the issue of the large urban-rural wealth gap. Partially as a result, today millions of Chinese citizens still remain below the poverty line.
Xi, on the contrary, is incredibly ambitious and has already carried out radical reform within his first five years. In order to stabilise the Chinese Communist Party and to improve its efficiency, he has carried out an intense ‘anti-corruption’ campaign which has purged the party of thousands of officials in every single province in China (albeit critics argue that this was done to rid the party of his political opponents). Furthermore, if successful, his ambitious One Belt One Road project will exert Chinese influence in corners of the world unprecedented five years ago, challenging US hegemonic influence in numerous regions, which is worrying. His most important legacy so far, however, is changing the constitution to include his own personal political ideology within it, known as Xi Jinping Thought.
Term limits were introduced by Deng Xiaoping in 1982 to prevent China falling into another dictatorship. By having successfully removed this, some commentators are now claiming that President Xi as the most powerful Chinese leader since Chairman Mao. Whilst China is not a Maoist dictatorship, recent years have highlighted a shift towards a cult of personality emerging around Xi. The face of ‘Uncle Xi’, as he is known by many Chinese citizens, is found in most souvenir shops, photographs of the leader are common in public places and criticism and mockery of Xi are censored; perhaps a most recent example of this is the ban on Winnie The Pooh, as some critical Chinese bloggers likened the Disney character to the President.
Consequences of an ever-more powerful Chinese president
Traditionally, countries ruled by leaders who have been in power for decades are marred by political instability and low overall prospects. However, this is not the case for China It is relatively stable politically as far as authoritarian regimes go, and is continuing with its economic growth trajectory, despite recent sluggish economic performance.
Supporters of Xi argue that the removal of term limits has been implemented to help Jinping implement his reform-minded policies. After all, Xi promised economic restructuring when he came to power in 2012, such as the strengthening of state-owned enterprises, which has yet not been successfully implemented. Moody’s Investors Service reiterated this view in October 2017, claiming that the consolidation of power by Jinping, ‘’could advance the process of economic reform and rebalancing’’.
In Xi’s first speech as President in 2012, he emphasised the need for mutual understanding between China and the rest of the world, stating that ‘’China needs to learn more about the world, and the world also needs to learn more about China.’’ Western leaders received these words with optimism. They saw in him, a new reform-minded leader, whose intention it was to step above his predecessor not just in domestic policy, but foreign policy too.
China generally, and more so under Xi, is open to bilateral and multilateral relationships, as highlighted by the recent state visits to the United States and the United Kingdom, which have resulted in increasing Chinese foreign direct investment, amongst other things.
However, we should also be cautious when handling a more ambitious and open China. President Xi’s ambitions for a more assertive China in international politics is cause for concern. Whilst Xi famously asserted that China is a ‘peaceful lion’ to reassure regional and global actors, his recent actions have shown that China is not as peaceful as he claimed. In recent years, under his leadership, we have seen him play war games; China has intensified territorial claims over the South China Sea, which is causing tension in the region, particularly with Japan. Furthermore, Xi is expanding the Chinese military heavily with the intention to prepare China to be able to win wars, something which he has stated openly.
On the 20 March 2018, in the first speech of his second term as President, Xi issued an aggressive warning to Taiwan implying that his ambition is to regain control of Taiwan and that those wishing to divide China would be punished. With President Xi remaining in power with no term-limits in place, this dangerous aspect of his agenda will continue and will remain a source of tension for potentially decades to come.
President Xi represents a 21st Century China. A China that is willing to set its own course in history by improving domestic conditions and taking a more assertive role in global affairs. Only time will tell what the result of this will be, but for now, Xi Jinping has been given the approval to steer China in whatever direction he wishes to choose.