Chinese President Xi Jinping has done it. In theory, he can rule for life now. Hitherto, the constitution barred presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms. The Central Committee of the Communist Party recently stated that this will no longer be the case. The Chinese media announced the move amid a series of “structural reforms,” while the Western media jumped on information to accuse the president, who is also the head of the army and the Communist Party, of wanting to go it alone. He was dubbed “China’s new emperor,” “autocrat for life” and “China’s godfather.”
This may seem exaggerated but one thing is certain: No other Chinese politician in the past two decades has managed to mobilize power around himself as much as Xi Jinping. On the other hand, the 64-year-old also has much more ambitious plans than his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao ever did. Since taking office in 2013, he has announced his visions of a “Chinese dream,”,”affluence for everybody” and a “New Silk Road” project; he wants China to build a community of common destiny and help determine the future of humanity.
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From transitionary candidate to power politician
DW’s Frank Sieren
From Africa to the Antarctic, China has invested massively into infrastructural projects and increased the dependence of emerging economies on Beijing. In China itself, Xi has vamped up the military and modernized the economy by investing in technologies of the future such as e-mobility and artificial intelligence. Though he originally came across as a transitional candidate with little vision, he has proven to be a strategically-thinking power politician in the party. His massive anti-graft campaign removed corrupt functionaries and political opponents, whom he replaced with allies. The party’s power has also expanded under Xi. In Beijing, there are banners with party slogans all over. Some people use them instead of street names to find their way now.
All of this has been legitimized by a cult of personality that would have been unthinkable under Xi’s deliberately bland and harmless-seeming predecessors. In October, the party decided to enshrine “Xi Jinping Thought” in the constitution. In the past, only Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, who opened up China’s economy after Mao’s death, were bestowed such an honor. Deng actually introduced a limit on presidential terms after suffering under Mao who removed former allies and triggered a massive famine with the Great Leap Forward and plunged the country into a state of virtual civil war with the Cultural Revolution. Deng didn’t want China to be subjected to the whims of one ruler ever again. At the beginning of the 1980s, the principle of “collective leadership” was anchored in the constitution. Despite not having an official title, Deng’s influence on Chinese politics was significant until the end of his life and beyond. His approach was more elegant than that of Xi, whose constitutional amendment smacks of intimidation.
Whether Xi’s term will have historical dimensions remains to be seen. The fact that party loyalty, censorship and a state economy will continue to play a big role was already clear without such an old-school and authoritarian show of power. Xi has not done himself a favor. He has also damaged the international image of China, a country that likes to present itself as modern and open to the world. China’s young and urban population is perplexed as the debate in social media shows. “Our emperor has received the Mandate of Heaven, so we have to kneel and accept,” one person on the social platform Weibo posted. Others compared Xi to Yuan Shikai, the Chinese general who became president of China after the 1911 revolution and attempted to restore the monarchy under his rule.
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A more educated population
China is no longer the country that it was under Yuan Shikai or Mao. China’s population is better educated, more affluent and better informed than ever. Despite censorship, citizens cannot be served any old propaganda. Moreover, there is little reason to feed them propaganda as the average Chinese citizen has profited concretely from Xi’s policies. The poverty rate is down, the domestic market has been boosted and there is less pollution. China’s influence in the world has never been so great. Xi does not want to transform the world’s most populous country into a peasant and worker’s state like Mao but into a global power that can rival or even surpass the US as the strongest economy in the world. To do this, China needs long-term, self-confident leadership under a strong man.
It’s also true that in the eyes of many developing countries China has managed to refute the Western-imported belief that democracy, the separation of powers and a free market are important for economic success. Even if Xi’s recipe is a direct contradiction of Western values in many ways, we should not forget one thing: More power means more responsibility. And Xi has now taken on a responsibility of historic proportions.
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DW’s Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.