27 February 2018

Xi's Power Grab Has Global Implications

The recent announcement by China’s ruling Communist Party that it was considering the removal of the term limits (two five-year terms) on the holding of the presidency in China was hardly a surprise.  For the past few years, speculation had been mounting that Chinese President Xi Jinping was planning to remain in office beyond the ten years that had become the standard time in office for presidents of the world’s most-populous country.  After he did not appoint a clear successor or install a younger generation of leaders during the last Communist Party congress, it was obvious that President Xi was positioning himself to remain in office beyond the end of this second term in 2023.  Furthermore, through the removal of potential rivals and the raising of key allies to important positions in the government, President Xi has amassed more political power than any other Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.  This combination of the consolidation of power in President Xi’s hands and his likelihood of remaining in power for some time to come is a development of the upmost importance for the rest of the world, given that China is now the world’s second-largest political and economic power.  In fact, it appears that President Xi intends to remain in power long enough to lead China as it attempts to overtake the United States and become the world’s indispensable power.

One of the obvious questions surrounding President Xi’s apparent efforts to extend his stay in office is why he would want to change a system that has proven so successful for China since it was introduced in the 1980s.  In terms of political and economic stability, the two-term limit on the presidency in China has, so far, been an undeniable success.  When the two-term limit on the presidency was introduced under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, it was an attempt to prevent any single Chinese leading from amassing the amount of power that Mao Zedong was able to do during his decades in power.  Since the system has been in place, successive Chinese leaders have voluntarily relinquished power after ten years in office, even if they attempted to maintain a degree of influence after they left the presidency.  In fact, President Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, was praised for relinquishing all power when he stepped down from the presidency in 2012.  During this period of time-limited presidencies, China’s economy underwent a transformation that saw it emerge from two centuries of backwardness to become once again a major global economic power.  Furthermore, China emerged from the turmoil of the Mao years, and the upheavals of the pro-democracy uprisings in 1989, to become a more stable place.  In fact, at no time in recent centuries has China enjoyed a higher degree of political stability than in recent years.

While President Xi has not explicitly indicated why he intends to remain in power beyond his first two terms in office, he has given some hints as to his motivation.  Of course, one obvious reason is that, when a Chinese president enters the final years of his second term in office, he becomes a lame-duck president, whose power clearly wanes as the end of his time in office approaches.  In addition, President Xi has made many enemies by using charges of corruption to purge many of his would-be rivals within the Communist Party.  At the same time, President Xi is aware of the success that foreign leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have had in amassing more power in their own hands and changing their countries’ political systems in order to remain in power for an extended period of time.  Meanwhile, China’s president clearly believes that he is the only person who can lead his country during the major transformations that are underway there.  This includes China’s rise to superpower status, which will require China to play a much greater role in global affairs while running into resistance from the world’s other superpower, the United States.  In addition, China is in the midst of a dramatic economic transformation as the days of double-digit economic growth are gone and as China’s economy shifts from one that is driven by manufactured exports to one that is increasingly driven by domestic demand within China. 

These moves by President Xi carry considerable risks for the future success of China.  By staying in power for a prolonged period of time and amassing ever more power in his own hands, President Xi could move China into a period of political and economic turmoil such as those that characterized the period under the leadership of China’s last all-powerful leader, Mao Zedong.  In fact, the apparent meritocracy that was being developed by China’s Communist Party has won many plaudits around the world, and was a major factor in the attractiveness of China for businesses and investors, a fact that played a key role in China’s economic miracle.  Now, as he looks to gain support for his efforts to lengthen and strengthen his control of China’s political system, President Xi is turning to policies such as nationalism in order to boost his support among China’s population.  These efforts could even be stepped up should China’s economy run into trouble in the coming years, with economic growth rates slowing and with issues such as rising debt levels threatening to derail the world’s second-largest economy.  Without a doubt, overly centralized power in China could bring problems to that country and could bring an end to a system that has proven to have worked remarkably well in recent decades.  Nevertheless, President Xi appears determined to maintain his grip on power for the foreseeable future.