Xi Jinping is unmaking Deng Xiaoping’s China
The world should give up the hope that China will liberalize and democratize as it becomes more prosperous
It is almost certain that Chinese President Xi Jinping will stay in office for a third term, if not longer. The central committee of the Communist Party of China has proposed removing the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms for the offices of the president and the vice-president. This was not entirely a surprise—Xi is not very good at hiding his ambitions—but the rapidity with which things have moved after the 19th party congress in October last year has caught even long-time China watchers off guard.
Why does Xi need a longer term as China’s president? After all, he could continue as the general secretary of the Communist Party and as the chairman of the Central Military Commission—two much more powerful positions—and get a loyalist to occupy the president’s office. This would save his political capital, which will now be spent on the constitutional amendment. There could be two possible reasons.
One, even a loyalist, rubber-stamp president can turn out to be a challenger at some point in the future. Xi has made a great many enemies in the Chinese establishment. In the name of his anti-corruption drive, he has purged a procession of potential rivals and senior leaders from the party and the military. Some of the high-profile names include Sun Zhengcai (former party secretary of Chongqing), Zhou Yongkang (former secretary of the party’s central political and legal affairs commission), Guo Boxiong (former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission) and Fang Fenghui (former chief of the army’s joint staff department). There have also been whispers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sometimes overstepping the line drawn by the party. General Fang, for instance, was perceived to be an obstacle to the resolution of the Doklam stand-off between India and China. All this suggests that despite all his power accumulation exercise, Xi’s insecurities are far from over.
Two, while the office of the presidency is weaker than the posts of party and military chiefs, there is international prestige attached to it. China is increasingly aiming to be seen as the top-most global leader. Xi’s speech in Davos last year defending globalization and China’s growing role in climate change conferences should be seen in this light. China is also leading new institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank (also known as the Brics bank). And to top it all, Xi’s pet project, the Belt and Road Initiative, is one of the most ambitious bids for global leadership ever seen. Ceding the office for presidency to someone else would mean, as Shannon Tiezzi of The Diplomat writes, that “someone else gives the speeches, and (more importantly) someone else rubs elbows with the other heads of state”.
The effects of Xi’s longer term in office will be felt across the world. But those effects are also a function of what transpires in China in the first place. In terms of leadership style and choice of policies, Xi is more Mao Zedong than Deng Xiaoping. While Mao believed in helping revolutionary movements around the world, Deng’s approach was informed by his mantra of “hide your strength, bide your time”. Xi’s China is moving back, closer to Mao, by interfering in the domestic politics of other countries. Deng introduced political reforms so as to prevent the kind of concentration of power possible under Mao. The two-term limit on presidency was part of those reforms. Xi is now reversing Deng’s legacy on this front too.
Deng was the great economic reformer and his policies can be credited with pulling millions of Chinese out of poverty. The pace of economic reforms under Xi has been uninspiring. As Evan A. Feigenbaum of the Paulson Institute says, Xi’s focus has been less on reducing the role of the state and more on pooling private capital with that of state-owned enterprises. Xi’s reforms prioritize domestic competition over competition with foreign firms. Feigenbaum sums it up aptly: “Deng Xiaoping’s policy was ‘reform and opening up’ (gaige kaifang); by contrast, Xi’s policy aims to decouple reform from opening up.”
Xi’s three-pronged approach of limited economic liberalization, muscular foreign policy and iron-fisted control over internal dissidence is likely to shape the China that the world will be dealing with. Holding the reins of power for a long duration by manipulating internal political and constitutional processes is not just a Mao-era phenomenon—in recent years, Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey have shown how this can be done. Given the size of China and its economy, the impact of Xi following the same path will be far greater. One does not know when the music will stop for the China growth story, but when it does, Xi will have the nationalism card to play. More importantly, he will also have several infrastructure facilities around the world, grabbed through his belt and road projects, to provide logistical support for his nationalistic adventures.
The world should give up the hope that China will liberalize and democratize as it becomes more prosperous. This is Xi’s China, Deng is long dead.
How should India prepare for Xi Jinping’s longer tenure as China’s president? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org