Xi Jingping is now effectively president-for-life. Much is being made of Xi’s move, and rightly so. However, we should understand that this move by Xi is likely one of anxiety and not confidence. The move likely divides party elites so it doesn’t necessarily redound to his and the Communist Party’s benefit, and it is not a move that necessarily means the U.S. is in more peril regarding China than it already was.
China watchers know that Xi’s most important title and position is not president. The most powerful person in communist China has always been the general chairman of the Communist Party because parties run communist regimes. Moreover, the head of the party usually heads up the commission that oversees the military forces. Communists who achieve power are almost always Leninists; Lenin’s example taught Mao Zedong that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” By removing the term limits to the presidency in China, Xi becomes what Mao was — a permanent and exceedingly powerful dictator.
What does president-for-life get him? Xi has spent his first term in an unprecedented crackdown on corruption. At least that is how the regime describes it. In reality, since so many Chinese officials in the party, the government, the military and the state-owned economy are corrupt, it is not difficult for him to cast a net and catch a lot of people up in it. But it is also a very convenient way to rid oneself of rivals and officials not necessarily on board with Xi’s ideas. Xi has put a lot of people in jail, executed some, and a good number have committed suicide once the authorities came after them.
By staying in power indefinitely, Xi can continue his crackdown and intimidate for an undetermined time all who would oppose him, especially those friends of the people he’s prosecuted. He can make sure that would-be rivals spend their time trying to avoid his wrath instead of subverting him. And since there is a huge corruption problem in China, he needs a long-term campaign to root out what is doing real harm to the economy and social trust in China. The party has a negative image with many because of the corruption. No wonder his crackdown has been cheered by the public.
But Xi did not make this change because he’s confident that the regime is stable. If he were, no change would have been needed, certainly not a change that implies China is regressing after years of promises put forward by Sinophiles and experts that China would moderate as it grew rich. Xi knows that corruption, massive internal indebtedness in the public and private sectors, a low birth rate, and too few female births because of the one-child policy are all ticking time bombs for China’s economy and therefore for its social and political stability. Xi wants to helm the ship of state longer because he fears for the future and has convinced himself that he is needed to do it.
And he’s potentially playing with fire. When Mao passed from the scene and Deng Xiaoping finally came to prominence, he left his successors with a system designed to end the very real problem of unchallenged leaders growing old in power and bringing harm to the state through erratic decisions or no decisions. He would choose the succession so that everyone would know who comes next. He wanted to prevent another scenario like the one Mao created by staying in power for decades and wreaking havoc on China with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Some estimates put Mao’s death toll at over 100 million.
Deng knew that being president-for-life is bad management. Some form of collective leadership of the very top of the party with one individual having some preeminence was better than what Mao had done, which was essentially claiming a secular “mandate from heaven” like the Chinese emperors of old. No one is smart enough or strong enough to rule unchallenged forever. Aged leaders become complacent and too comfortable in power. They lose their fire, and sometimes their minds, if they stay long enough. History is replete with cases of leaders who stayed too long and brought their countries down with them. But Xi is risking that, and by ending the careers of a lot of ambitious party officials, he’s sowing resentment and bitterness that could come back to bite him.
What does this change mean for the US and our allies and the surrounding nations?
For one, it gives the lie to the idea that China is modernizing, as noted above. For decades after Deng’s ascension and his moves to free up the economy — somewhat — many argued that China would become a normal nation and embrace a peaceful role in the international system. That is, it wouldn’t be a rising power that challenges the order because it would see the benefits of being a commercial power aided by global peace.
But the Communist Party has never been interested in free markets and free peoples; it has never been interested in joining the US and Europe as keepers of the post-WWII system. Early on, it cared only about surviving, but once it gained wealth, it began to flex its muscles to boot the US from its region. China has been a strategic competitor at best and means us ill as long as we are present in what it considers its backyard. What we face in China and always have, and what we must do to confront China, hasn’t really changed because Xi just reverted to Mao’s form of rule. Whoever would have taken his place if he’d left the old system alone would behave pretty much as he has and will into the future in opposing the U.S. Our presence and our support for allies that China thinks should defer to Beijing are a huge offense to China; the goal is for China to return to its rightful place in the world, which is hegemon in Asia and rival to any other hegemon.
Xi just thinks he is better suited to promote China’s interests as it deals with the problems it has created for itself. But if history and political theory tell us anything, he’s making the problem worse if he stays in power till he needs a nurse to assist him at cabinet meetings.
So while Xi’s move to become president indefinitely is bold, it doesn’t mean that China just became stronger or more threatening. As the French say, “the more it changes, the more it’s the same.” China is still a communist regime, after all, and our leaders have the same duty as they always had: to be vigilant.