How Xi Jinping’s ‘lifetime presidency’ could change China – for better or worse

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Dylan Loh Ming Hui, University of Cambridge

Thanks to surprising new constitutional amendments – curiously, first announced in English – the path is clear for Xi Jinping and his chosen vice-president to rule China beyond the ten-year two-term limit.

Pragmatically, most analysts expected Xi to retain power to some extent after 2023 by retaining his posts as Chairman of the Central Military Commission and General-Secretary of the Communist Party. But now, it seems he is going nowhere and the full implications of this will busy China watchers for many years.

What does a (potentially) life-term president in Beijing mean for China’s Asian neighbours? For starters, Asian countries worried about China’s increasing assertiveness can no longer pin their hopes on a more benign and mild leader arising in the future. Strategically, they would have to meet a more robust China as a geopolitical fact for decades to come. This would mean, possibly, more countries pivoting towards China as a hugely unpredictable US continues to send mixed signals to Asia.

Next, as a historically weak institution, we can expect to see growing confidence from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its diplomats. Xi has already shown he’s prepared to rely on the ministry as he consolidates power even further, and now, its stock will continue to rise.

China is now also ready to recalibrate its “soft power” efforts along more Xi-centric lines. China Xinhua News may have laid it on rather thickly by claiming that the “personal charisma of President #XiJinping fosters a love of China in countries all around the world #Xiplomacy”, but the rest of the world can nonetheless expect more efforts to control and promote Xi the man as a regional and global leader.

The role of vice-president will also be closely watched. Traditionally, the vice-presidency is largely ceremonial and devoid of real power or in a suppliant position for the president-elect to observe and be observed. But with Xi’s changes in place, a future vice-president will wield considerable influence and power – even if Xi decides to appoint one who currently sits outside the Politburo (the party’s political bureau) or its smaller standing committee.

The widely rumoured frontrunner for the job is Xi’s trusted ally Wang Qishan. Wang not long ago retired from the seven-member Politburo, which some saw as a sign that Xi still felt bound by the so-called “seven up eight down” norm in which officials must retire from the Politburo Standing Committee if they are 68 or older at the time of a Party Congress. But given Xi has now sidestepped both party and state convention to further entrench his power base, his new prerogatives quite probably override conventions over who can be appointed to what and when.

The perks of a lifetime president

However unpalatable it may sound, having a strong, long-serving leader may be a good thing for China. Predictability and stability will earn Xi the political capital he needs to instigate urgently needed financial and social reforms – fixing the banking system, allocating and reallocating capital, reworking regulatory structures, tackling inequality. This can only bode well for the Chinese economy, and as an upshot, the regional and global economy.

On another front, the prospect of a lifelong Xi presidency will disappoint many corrupt and potentially corrupt Chinese officials who originally thought they could simply stick it out till 2023. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign (even if we consider it a political pruning exercise) has undoubtedly delivered real benefits to the economy and its people. Having shown no signs of slowing down his campaign, Xi seems intent on not just rooting out corrupt individuals, but forcing the sort of cultural shift that inevitably takes a long time. If he succeeds, this may be his most important legacy.

Additionally, if Xi indeed stays on for more than ten years, it prevents alternative leaders from undoing his work. This gives him all the more freedom and resources to achieve the “Chinese Dream” and the twin goals known as the “Two Centenaries” – a “moderately well-off society” by 2021 and a “democratic, civilised, harmonious, and modern socialist country” by 2049.

While it may seem too early to consider life after Xi, China has to start imagining what that life might look like – especially if Xi successfully uses his long reign to refashion institutional and party norms in his image.

A recent study by Erica Frantz and Andrea Kendall-Taylor shows that institutionalised authoritarian regimes tend to remain remarkably stable where they enjoy strong party and military support. As they write:

22% of highly personalised dictatorships (those regimes lacking strong parties or a military) collapsed when the leader died – compared to 6% of institutionalised dictatorships. Although instability risk in highly personalised settings is comparatively higher, the actual prospects remain low.

If we take their findings as read and assume that Xi gets his way, the prospect that this president will eventually be succeeded by another enduring and entrenched authoritarian is more than likely. That is a worrying prognosis. Xi has eliminated his political rivals and emasculated alternative power centres. Should a truly dangerous dictator come to power, he would find a cowed elite, weak institutional constraints, and a compliant public unused to political mobilisation. Xi’s move, perhaps ironically and however unintended, lays the groundwork for another Mao to emerge – presenting the biggest risk of all in Xi’s gambit.

Dylan Loh Ming Hui, Graduate Research Fellow and PhD Candidate, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

12 COMMENTS

  1. China President Xi Jinping is a wise leader in this century. His signature project, ‘One Road, One Belt initiatives’ or ‘the new Silk Road’ that would spread to many parts of the continent would bring the world together economically, socially and peoples to peoples interactions would definitely bring peace and prosperity to mankind. Only those countries which still harbour their ambitious to invade Chine like the ancient days where China was cut into many pieces like ;Soft meat’ are working behind the scenes to undermine its success. Those countries were seen trying the best to undermine the world’s most ambitious project by playing up the South China Seas issues and the idea of free navigation as well as quarreling about the North Korean Issues. People from both sides of the Korean Peninsula wanted peace and family reunification and why are those countries standing in their ways not forgetting they have caused so much pains and miseries to the people of the Korean Peninsula by their invasion of their country in the name of Emperor Hirohito.

  2. We should read the life history of the Ming Emperor when he sent the guy without balls (called eunuch) to sail around the world in the old maritime silk route. If you read the works of historians from all over the world, the guy with no balls attacked Chinese in Java and Siam, that do not wish to kow tow to the emperor. Then there are sailors who went around the world and have local people bore children which they left behind eg Lamu in Kenya. I am sure after I write this, someone who likes to kiss asses because either is he is aggrieved by our education policies or because he depended on the descendants of the eunuch for business, will start attacking the comments made here. Let’s wait for that person (s) to appear.

  3. This means that SG is screwed and Looney Long must go as he has already offended and made a reputation as untrustworthy by the current Chinese government. SG PAP government has been marked by Xi as opportunistic regime. The ties with China will never be mended with the dishonorable son around.

  4. A Singapore fed with US MSM sewage can’t figute out what’s going on inthe actual world. Even a Cambridge Phd wrote such pathetic thesis.

    Xi is a Dictator that his 1.4B people & 60Mil CCCP members happily supported their party decision to extend his terms unlimited with no protest? Our Western darling, LKY is been labeled dictator for over 30yrs, which he proudly declared, then I must be the most benevolent dictator that built a prosperous peaceful safe country, unlike US is plagued with poverty, homeless, jobless, violent crimes, and complete corrupted system.

    Read this, with more interesting comments.
    http://www.unz.com/article/chinese-president-xi-jinping-who-is-he/

    In 1980 Deng Xiaoping set 2020 as the completion date for his Reform and Opening program–a 40-year overhaul of China’s economy.

    On June 1, 2021 President Xi will announce that all Deng’s goals have been reached and a basic xiaokang society established: no one is poor and everyone receives an education, has paid employment, more than enough food and clothing, access to medical services, old-age support, a home and a comfortable life–a claim no other country can make.

    Godfree-1

    Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore’s Prime Minister for 30 years, said the primary responsibility of a government leader to “Paint his vision of the future to his people, translate that vision into policies which he must convince the people are worth supporting and, finally, galvanize them to help him implement them,”

    A month after becoming President, in 2012, Xi painted his vision for Two Centennials: to fix inequality (‘socialist modernization’) by 2012 and to transform China into ‘a great modern socialist country, prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful’ by 2049. American Nobelist Robert Fogel agrees that China will be prosperous: its economy will be twice the size of Europe’s and America’s combined in 2049.

    Because he must paint China’s new vision, colleagues granted Xi ‘core leader’ status in 2017 and amended the constitution in 2018 so he and PM can serve another term and make sure the new era gets off to a good start. Since he will be around until at least 2027, it may be a good idea to get to know him before our media intensify their attacks on him. Here’s a short bio.