The removal of term limits for China’s presidency marks the end of an era. Xi Jinping is the first Chinese leader who is not a revolutionary like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, or selected by one of modern China’s founders. Deng put poverty-stricken China on the path to development and political reforms, and his influence continued after his 1997 death – both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were chosen by Deng.
Xi’s grab for sustained power dashes hopes that China might become democratic as it develops. His move generated a storm of criticism, but governments by and large have remained silent. As explained by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders: “I believe that’s a decision for China to make about what’s best for their country.” US President Donald Trump was less restrained. “I think it’s great,” he said, possibly joking during a closed-door fundraiser. “Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”
Actually, the logic behind Xi’s leadership over the last five years almost dictates a need for indefinite power, certainly beyond the customary 10 years. Since November 2012, when he became the Communist party leader, he may have had no intention of stepping down. Two weeks after his appointment. Xi led the six other members of the Politburo standing committee to the National Museum in Tiananmen Square to view a grand exhibition called “The Road to Revival.” The exhibition recalled China’s “century of humiliation” beginning with the Opium War. Afterward, Xi talked about the China Dream, or “the great revival of the Chinese nation.”
Needless to say, such an ambitious goal, restoring China to its preeminent position from earlier centuries, could not be achieved in 10 years. Similarly, his highly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, possibly the largest infrastructure and investment project ever articulated, covering some 66 countries, was unveiled during the first year of his presidency. Such an initiative, designed to enhance China’s global influence, could not be wrapped up in two five-year terms.
Xi has ended Deng’s policy of “biding time and hiding strength.” Instead, at the 19th Party Congress last October, he made clear in his 3.5-hour speech that it was time for China to move to centre stage backed by a strong military. By not naming a successor, the practice for two decades, Xi confirmed suspicions that he intended to remain leader indefinitely.
Mao called for world revolution when China’s economy was puny, but Xi leads a country becoming more powerful by the day. As Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, once observed, Japan and India combined cannot balance China. The month after Xi’s speech, representatives of four democratic countries – the United States, Japan, India and Australia – held talks in Manila on widening their security cooperation. The quadrilateral security dialogue ostensibly was not directed at any specific country, but clearly was a response to China’s increasing assertiveness under Xi. As China’s shadow lengthens, that semi-alliance may well attract new members.
China is pleased the United States is paying less attention to the Asia region and interests of its partners. The South China Sea, in particular, is quiescent in the aftermath of China’s rejection of the 2016 ruling by an arbitral tribunal in The Hague supporting the Philippines against China’s claims to virtually the entire sea.
The ruling was not enforceable. In the Philippines, the Rodrigo Duterte administration opted for economic benefits through improved relations with China. The Association of Southeast Asia Nations went silent on the issue, pleasing China to no end. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi alluded to the United.States when he said at a March 8 press conference: “Some outside forces are not happy with the prevailing calm and try to stir up trouble and muddle the waters.” Washington sent an aircraft carrier to Vietnam, from March 5 to 9, and The Global Times responded with an article headlined: “USS Carl Vinson’s Vietnam visit will be to little avail.”
Individual Southeast Asian nations have little ability to stand up for their interests, and Beijing continues to use various means to demonstrate its sovereignty over disputed waters. The nation is proposing a marine park in the disputed area to “protect the region’s ecology,” with no mention of a joint project with other nations.
As strongman, Xi can be more effective, acting swiftly and wielding influence over outcomes. Consider when Kim Jong-un became North Korea’s leader in December 2011. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, approached China for help to replace Kim with his older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, who lived in Macao. It is known that Jang met China’s Hu Jintao on August 17, 2012, three months before Xi was due to take over. Hu reportedly gave no decision, suggesting he had to consult colleagues. Subsequently, Kim’s uncle was executed for “treason” and the half-brother was killed in Malaysia with nerve gas. If Xi had been approached, he no doubt might have been more decisive and influenced history.
The China model of authoritarian development has its attractions. With Xi pouring scorn on Western democracy, some African and South Asian countries may well emulate China, and create a more amenable environment for Chinese-style authoritarianism worldwide. On the negative side, the personality cult around Xi may result in arrogance that clouds his judgment. Already, at the National People’s Congress session where the constitution was amended, the party leader of Qinghai, Wang Guosheng, said some Tibetans were calling Xi a “living bodhisattva,” in Buddhism, a person who delays approaching nirvana to help others Ironically, the party constitution is clear: “The Party forbids all forms of personality cult.”
Xi will likely continue using the United Nations to achieve Chinese purposes. On human rights, for instance, China last year introduced a resolution in the Human Rights Council loaded with political slogans, such as Xi Jinping’s call for a “community of shared future.” The resolution doesn’t contain Xi’s name but in December, at what China called the “First South-South Human Rights Forum,” the resolution did mention Xi by name.
China uses international bodies to carry out its agenda. After Margaret Chan, a Chinese-Canadian physician, became director-general of the World Health Organisation in 2006, that body consistently used the term “Taiwan, province of China,” in its documents as insisted by China. Xi refers regularly to “the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation,” tens of millions of ethnic Chinese who are citizens of other countries. For China, the diaspora can be used as part of the United Front, which Xi calls a “magic weapon” as China relentlessly seeks to enhance its influence in countries such as Australia.
Taiwan is a priority area for Xi. He has repeatedly said that rejuvenation cannot occur without reunification. Now Xi has a deadline for returning Taiwan to the fold: 2049. Although Xi continues to talk about “peaceful reunification,” it would be wise to remember the words of Xu Guangyu, the retired general who explained Chinese aggressive activities in the East China Sea in 2010: “We kept silent and tolerant over territorial disputes with our neighbors in the past because our navy was incapable of defending our economic zones, but now our navy is able to carry out its task.”
Chinese capabilities, including the development of missiles capable of destroying aircraft carriers, continue to grow, and it must be remembered that China passed a 2005 law giving itself the right to use “non-peaceful means” to take over Taiwan. In the annals of Chinese history, the Qin emperor is revered for unifying China, and Xi wants to go down in history as the man who finally unified China – and possibly the first ruler of “all under the heaven.”
This article first appeared on YaleGlobal Online