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Did Xi Jinping just become China’s strongman? Not quite.

China's ruling Communist Party proposed changes to the constitution that would allow President Xi Jinping to rule more than the current limit of two terms. (Video: Reuters)

What does it mean that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) changed the rules just now and removed presidential term limits? Many analysts expected that President Xi Jinping would step down in 2023 after completing a second term — then pull the political strings from behind the scenes, akin to “paramount leader” Deng Xiaoping.

To some analysts, this latest move makes Xi a strongman. He continues to roll back the norms of China’s post-Mao Zedong collective leadership system and consolidate his power.

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Research on how to measure a leader’s personalism sheds light on these developments and how Xi’s moves compare with those in other regimes, like Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Kim Jong Un’s North Korea or Paul Kagame’s Rwanda. 

What defines a “personalist dictator”?

The study of personalist dictatorships looks at regimes in which the leader exercises power with little outside restraint, unencumbered by rules or commitment to an ideology. Most dictatorships feature some degree of personalism, but a host of factors influence the extent to which the leader retains the ultimate say in policy.

What is developing in China isn’t the typical strongman regime, though. Xi still operates within a well-institutionalized party system. High-level officials, while loyal, rose through the party apparatus, where competence remains an important criterion for promotion. Research shows that when a leader rises up through an existing political party as Xi did (rather than creating his own), the party is more resilient to a leader’s attempts to control the system.

This means Xi’s trajectory is quite different from personalist dictatorships like Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq, Idi Amin’s in Uganda or Rafael Trujillo’s in the Dominican Republic. In those regimes, competent officials were sidelined or killed in favor of family members, friends or individuals — and violence helped sustain the regime. So while Xi has amassed power and sidelined rivals with a crackdown on corruption, he is still a party man.

Moreover, the CCP’s pervasive network continues to monitor citizen behavior, rewarding loyalists and withholding benefits from the less compliant. An estimated 1 in 4 Chinese families have a CCP member, and Xi relies on this party base for support.

Most personalist dictatorships, in contrast, are far more brittle. In Russia, Putin does not head a political party and is running as an independent in the 2018 presidential election. As with other personalist dictators, his support is fundamentally based on the distribution of financial rewards through exclusively personal relationships.

Personalist dictatorships can be problematic… 

The question of whether the Chinese regime should be seen as personalist is more than an academic one. Understanding who controls access to political power and how decisions are made affects the behavior and outcomes of authoritarian regimes. As we have written, a robust body of research shows that when decisions reflect the personal whims of an individual rather than the consensus of an elite group, outcomes suffer.

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Personalist dictatorships are the most likely form of authoritarianism to pursue risky and aggressive foreign policies like investing in nuclear weapons or fighting wars against democracies. These regimes rely on corruption and tend to initiate interstate conflicts.

…as is the very process of personalization 

Here, we examine the implications of the process of personalization itself. To do this, we draw on a new index on personalism, compiled by Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright and Erica Frantz. This index contains eight components, most of which describe the distribution of power between the leader and the support party (if one exists), and the leader and the security forces.

Here’s our take: Xi has not yet crossed the threshold into personalist dictatorship but is moving closer, and his regime demonstrates a number of characteristics of personalism. For example, personal loyalty to Xi dictates access to high office, and he largely controls appointments to the party executive committee and the security apparatus. But Xi doesn’t have his own security service or paramilitary loyal to him alone — like Putin’s National Guard, for instance.

We find that the process of personalization leads those at the top to increase their reliance on repression to maintain control, even when accounting for other factors that could affect this relationship, such as international conflict or domestic dissent. This is consistent with other research showing that personalist dictatorships repress more than party-based regimes.

This means Xi’s actions may “signal the likelihood of another long period of severe repression,” as one observer put it, referring to Mao’s despotic rule. Party-based regimes have mechanisms of control that can mobilize support, lowering the need to repress citizens, but this is undermined by greater personalization of power.

Xi’s longer tenure may put the CCP at risk 

Research also shows that the process of personalization is likely to prolong Xi’s time in office — but increase the regime’s risk of failure. The more personalized the regime becomes, the less likely it will survive Xi’s eventual departure.

This is the challenge that Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro faces in trying to keep the dictatorship there afloat after the 2013 death of Hugo Chávez. That is not to say that regime collapse is imminent in China, but rather that the risk of breakdown is higher than it was in the past.

Are coups good for democracy?

And there’s a final risk. Early gains in personal power give the leader an advantage to further consolidate his power over time. Similarly, the longer Xi remains in office, the more personalized the system is likely to become.

Here’s an example: In Cambodia, Hun Sen slowly transformed the regime over the course of more than three decades in power from one in which the Cambodian People’s Party played a significant role in decision-making to one in which he reigns supreme.

For China, the personalization of power would have lasting ramifications for the country’s political development. The way that personalist dictators hollow out political institutions, sideline competent individuals and disregard norms creates conditions that are inhospitable for democracy once Xi falls from power.

In 2012, the CCP sought out a strong and decisive leader who could restore domestic perceptions of the regime. The party, particularly those in it who have acquiesced to Xi’s power play, viewed a powerful figure as necessary to overcome mounting public dissatisfaction, especially with corruption that accumulated during Hu Jintao’s 10-year reign. But in selecting Xi, the CCP may have gotten a stronger man than it had hoped for.

Erica Frantz is an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University. 

Andrea Kendall-Taylor is deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

Joseph Wright is an associate professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University.