The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s Xi steps up as the leader of the unfree world

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On Sunday, the Chinese Communist Party made an unexpected announcement: The party will propose scrapping the line in China's constitution that limits presidents to “no more than two consecutive terms.” That means President Xi Jinping, who just started his second five-year term, probably will rule well beyond 2023.

When Xi came to power half a decade ago, some commentators in the West imagined him leading his nation down the road of economic and political change. Instead, as we've discussed before, Xi ushered in a stiffening authoritarianism, purging thousands of political opponents, squeezing the already narrow space for civil society and presiding over the creation of a cutting-edge 21st- century surveillance state. The latest news only confirms his desire to bring China firmly under his grasp.

“It is the strongest sign yet that Xi intends to hold on to power, potentially taking China back toward one-man rule,” my colleague Emily Rauhala noted.

The two-term limit was imposed in the wake of China's traumatic Cultural Revolution, when the country was still reeling from the bloody despotism and personal whims of the long-ruling Mao Zedong. The amendment to the constitution “reflected a widespread desire to prevent the return of one-man dictatorship. Its abolition signals the likelihood of another long period of severe repression,” Jerome Cohen, a noted Chinese legal expert at New York University, wrote in a blog post.

The signs of a deepening dictatorship under Xi have been present for quite some time. Human rights activists have been jailed, internal party debate subdued and censorship ratcheted up — including against memes on social media that mocked Xi's budding imperial rule. In recent years, Beijing has also taken dramatic steps to rein in the special administrative region of Hong Kong. Once considered an incubator of liberal values that could help spread democracy and liberalism to the Chinese mainland, the former British colony is now increasingly at risk of losing its cherished freedoms.

My colleague Simon Denyer suggested there are some practical reasons Xi wants to remain in power: “Xi has already used his power to implement a far-reaching crackdown on corruption, even if it has also been used to instill obedience and eliminate rivals. He is equally determined to improve the way the party governs China, eliminate poverty and even improve the country’s poisoned environment.” But, he added, there are obvious risks: “Joseph Stalin and Mao both illustrated the dangers of centralizing too much power in one man’s hands, because one lonely man at the top can easily become paranoid.”

In the near term, Xi may have little to fear when it comes to internal challenges. But China’s economic growth is slackening, and some critics point to looming structural crises on the horizon that could further shock the system — and possibly give momentum to potential rivals among the various cliques and power centers within China's high leadership.

“Xi’s ability to push this decision through in the short-term is undoubtedly a display of his grip on all levers of power,” wrote veteran China watcher Richard McGregor. “But the very fact that he feels the need to do so could easily be a sign of something else — that he is possessed by an urgency to gather even more power than he already has to keep his enemies at bay.”

Xi’s move should also be seen in a broader global context. For years, Chinese officials and state media have rolled their eyes at Western lectures about China's undemocratic political system. They pointed to the dysfunction gripping democracies elsewhere, contrasting it to the economic and diplomatic successes achieved under one-party rule. And now, they are casting Xi's tightening grip as the right system for an uncertain geopolitical moment.

“In the era of globalization and the Internet, although China has stunning economic might, it has not yet become a leading power in terms of ideology and information,” the Global Times, China's oft-provocative English-language mouthpiece, wrote in an editorial. “The most influential value system in the world now is the Western value system established by the U.S. and Europe. It has shaped and affected quite a few Chinese people's mind-sets. But some key parts of the Western value system are collapsing. Democracy, which has been explored and practiced by Western societies for hundreds of years, is ulcerating.”

The value system floated here isn't wholly unique to China. Xi propagates a muscular brand of Chinese nationalism, steeped in appeals to a rosy imperial past and visions of a triumphant future — not unlike other illiberal autocrats elsewhere. Speaking to Denyer, Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, invoked Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has also challenged the Western-led status quo while playing the part of the indispensable father of his nation.

“Xi is a big admirer of Putin,” Lam said. He added: “The most reliable legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party is nationalism. Nationalism is very important to both the legitimacy of the party and Xi himself.”

If Xi is issuing a new challenge, it has yet to provoke much of a response. The muted reaction from Western governments to Xi's power grab underscored the calculation many governments seem to have made: In the age of nuclear threats and budding trade wars, strong, stable Chinese leadership — no matter the costs at home — is preferred to fragility or uncertainty in Beijing.

When pressed for comment Monday, White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said President Trump “has talked about term limits in a number of capacities during the campaign and something that he supports here in the United States, but that's a decision that's up to China.”

“Thirty years ago, with what Xi did ... there would have been an outpouring of international concern: ‘You’re getting off the path,’ and so on,” Michael A. McFaul, a political scientist and former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, told the New York Times. “Nobody is making that argument today.”

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