In the years following his ascent to the top of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, Xi Jinping amassed so much power that Chinese called him “chairman of everything.” Now with the announcement on Sunday that China was going to change its constitution to do away with term limits for president, Hong Kong’s plucky Apple Daily dubbed the portly leader “Emperor Xi Forever.”
At a time when the media in the West is transfixed with China’s rise and predictions that China will challenge the United States for global leadership, Xi’s move to stay at the helm of the Chinese Communist Party and its government is a reminder of the fundamental instability of the Chinese autocratic system of government. The whims of one man have rocked Communist China before; Xi’s power grab makes it more probable that it will happen again.
Communist China’s biggest problem has been political succession. Battling real and imagined foes, Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong threw his country into chaos at least three times during his political career, leaving millions dead in the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. These disastrous campaigns were essentially political offensives as Mao used street violence and calamitous economic policies to root out his enemies.
When Mao died in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping wrested power from Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and the rest of the “Gang of Four,” Deng moved to establish a rules-based system for succession to avoid the misadventures of the Maoist years. Deng had China’s constitution revised to stipulate that the post of China’s president could only be held for two five-year terms. The implication was that this would hold true for the far more important position of party leader. And the party announced that from now on, China would be governed by “a collective leadership,” not one man. Deng engineered the appointment of a succession of four party chiefs and established a tradition whereby prospective successors were ushered onto the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee for grooming.
It was under this system that Xi entered the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007 under party chief Hu Jintao. Xi became vice-president in 2008 and was given a top spot in the powerful Central Military Commission in 2010. Xi’s succession to the top party post in 2012 was not without drama. Xi, according to his own writings, was the target of a failed coup attempt. But at least it did not spark a societal-wide conflagration such as the political campaigns of Mao.
However, soon after he took over as party chief in 2012, Xi began dismantling the architecture established by Deng to avoid succession fights. First, he grabbed the leadership of all of the top policy-making committees — such as foreign affairs, national security and management of the economy — inside the party. His acolytes began printing Xi’s image on posters and platters and selling it across the country, prompting comparison to Mao’s cult of personality. So much for collective leadership.
At the time, Chinese analysts compared Xi’s power grab with that of Vladimir Putin who has stayed at the helm of Russian politics for more than 18 years. It is ironic to say the least, considering Russia’s tumble from world power to regional bully is the single most studied negative example in Chinese political circles. My Chinese friends used to laugh at the Russians. Now Xi was adopting Russia’s leader as a role model.
Then at the 19th Party Congress in the fall of last year, Xi took another swipe at the Deng system by blocking potential successors from joining the Politburo Standing Committee. He even organized the arrest of one of them — Sun Zhengcai — on charges of corruption. That move prompted rumors that Xi planned to stay on as party chief. Now with Sunday’s announcement, Xi clearly has showed his intention of sticking around as president, too.
As expected, the state-run Global Times editorialized on Sunday that the proposed constitutional changes were part of what it called the party’s “magical key to uniting Chinese society to overcome hardships and complete various missions.” The Global Times framed the decision as a way for China to “become the big winner in the world, strengthening its dignity in the face of the West.” Others have noted that Xi needs to concentrate more power in his hands in order to force through wrenching economic reforms.
But many Chinese I speak with are worried. For one, they note that since his ascension to power, Xi has not shown much enthusiasm to deal with the massive debt amassed by China’s state-run sector. He also seems to be increasingly paranoid about the power of China’s private capitalists.
Xi’s decision to appoint himself the modern-day version of an emperor could have implications for the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. If and when things go south, the economy slows further and the massive debt that China’s state-owned firms have amassed begins to cause a cascade of defaults and bankruptcies, Xi will be right in the crosshairs of his many political enemies and perhaps protesters on the street.
Writing in the Apple Daily in Hong Kong, commentator Lee Yee has predicted that Xi’s power grab will result in “a political catastrophe” as, like Mao, he inevitably will seek to crack down on enemies – imaginary or real.
If Communist history is any guide, Lee Yee could be right.