Do you remember 2011 movie Limitless ? The movie where Bradley Cooper -much like China’s president- acquires powers to be able to do anything beyond the capabilities of normal humans. Seems like Xi Jinping saw the movie too as the shell-shocking move towards him being limitless started off around the same time. Finally the dream has become a reality as China has removed the 10 year cap on its presidency’s term limits. What does this mean for China and the rest of the world? Is this the rise of a new autocracy? Or is it just an evolution towards sustaining high growth in a newly developed Chinese world?
Almost a month ago Xi Jinping and the Chinese govt decided to remove the term limits on presidential position and quite expectingly, it was conceived and engineered by none other than Xi himself. Xi’s move of entrenching the authority around himself has caused great consternation around the world as the leaders anticipate a more aggressive and expansionist policy-making as the president of one-fifth of the entire human race will virtually never step down from his position.
What does this mean ?
The removal of term limits from presidential position brings the national leadership into line with the Party and military leadership, neither of which have term limits, making Xi the ultimate voice of China’s destiny.
Now, the infinite succession of Xi into power can also be very beneficial for China in the short run as all the current policies will be elongated without any hurdles and hopefully continue the growth story without emanating any roadblocks from a leadership change. But, we also need to realise that though arguably, the Chinese agenda will be seamlessly perpetuated when the appendix of term limit will be removed but there is also no denying that this revamped autocracy will invite the same problems as every other autocracy does i.e, Favouritism over Contest, Monopolisation over Competition and the worst one… idealism over pragmatism. Experts largely agree that the move could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further towards authoritarianism.
The changes Xi has made are worrisome and simply vindicate the above theory for a number of reasons: They reinforce other changes to institutions and rules and paint a picture of a ruler who is centralising power in his image and personifying power rather than being leader of a team. The signals for an authoritarian attitude is already relevant in china’s new word ban of “Winnie the pooh” on Weibo(china’s twitter) as that’s what Xi is mockingly called. Maybe, just like any other wise autocrat Xi realises how dangerous even the smallest seeds of dissent among the people can be. Frankly, it is almost an evolved monarchy -just an old wine in a new bottle and though the opinion presented by the Chinese state media does paints a beautiful picture it fails to provide enough facts to substantiate those cases. It is important to have opinion being the result of multiple facts rather than having a fact to be supporting the position of out multiple opinions and in this case the Chinese opinions seem to be standing on a mere pole of Xi’s sincerity.
How did we get here ?
Its not coincidence that the Russian saga of Putin’s continuation merged with Xi’s ambitions. A sheer look at Xi’s term as president can show that Xi quickly learns from his counterpart up North I.e, once you have the power just don’t leave it. But that is also where the similarity ends as Putin’s idea of power grab is more subtle and discreet as opposed to Xi’s way of going all guns blazing and restoring the power to himself once and for all. Also, a closer study will reveal that this was not a one day affair…
His anti-corruption campaign was a master class in political warfare; since 2013 he has used it to clean up the party, clean out any potential challengers and insert his loyalists into broad swaths of the government, with himself at the top. He has imprisoned free-thinking lawyers and stamped out criticism of the party and the government in the media and online. Though people’s personal lives remain relatively free, he is creating a surveillance state to monitor discontent and deviance. This was particularly distinctive of him as most expected that with an affluent middle class and a maturing society, there will be an obvious need for liberalisation and civil rights but Xi successfully obliterated any resurgence whatsoever. Clearly it was not one but set of perfectly orchestrated set of masterstrokes that propelled Xi to where he is and summing up all this shows that the world better becomes his best friend and that no one can now afford to be on his bad side.
What next ?
We have to realise that the reason Chinese bureaucracy switched the term limits and the new amendments to the constitution in the first place was to shift from a personalised authoritarian rule to a balanced system where not just a single person but a group of leaders collectively decided on china’s destiny. But as the limit is lifted, the change in policy will push the Chinese system into much of the maoist era. It has also been pointed out by The Economist’s article that the bet made by the western world that an improved and developed china will push towards democracy and, at the very least, liberalisation but that that bet has failed. Now, it would be again a gross analytical error to expect that Xi Jinping would want to continue to sustain the liberal, international rules-based order once its economic power began to rival that of the United States. Again, this hope goes against the well-known fact that any and all decisions made by Xi and the Political centre is least pragmatic and more idealistic.
But With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
The power grab from xi xinping definitely gives him the infinite power to control and mould china’s destiny into his liking but that also means that any misstep and he can be singlehandedly held responsible for it . Even a small malignancy of favouritism can metastasise into the system and effect into same demerits as those of a dictatorship. The aim now should be to keep the interference of politburo into the policy making to bare minimum. The party and bureaucracy should not never be coincided as that would be learning nothing from the Mao’s mistakes. Also, Xi may be the centre of power but his powers still have limitations. He himself has very few delegated direct powers; power still resides with the Party’s collective leadership group so Xi has to take all major changes to the Politburo before he gets his way. The removal of term limits went through this process. Xi happens to be rather good at persuading the Politburo, but that doesn’t mean that his actions are unrestrained.
Xi has shown that he can wear the crown. The question is whether he can bear the cross.