WHEN XI JINPING became China’s president five years ago, there was reason for hope that Communist Party rule was gradually moving toward pluralism and the rule of law. Some criticism of government policies was permitted in the press and social media; scores of independent lawyers advocated for justice in the courts. A report titled “China 2030,” written by government experts in cooperation with the World Bank and issued months before Mr. Xi took power, concluded that “the government will need to transform itself into a lean, clean, transparent and highly efficient modern government that operates under the rule of law.”
Mr. Xi has indeed transformed his regime in the past five years, but in precisely the opposite direction. With the announcement Sunday that a limit of two presidential terms will be removed from the constitution, the 64-year-old Mr. Xi essentially became a president for life, in a return to personal dictatorship that China has not seen since Mao Zedong. Forgetting the lessons of Mao’s often disastrous reign, Mr. Xi is attempting to construct a 21st-century model of totalitarianism and offer it as an example to the rest of the world. His challenge is not just to Chinese who seek greater freedoms but also to defenders of democracy and human rights around the world.
In his first term as president, Mr. Xi has crushed the foundations of institutionalism laid by Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping. An anti-corruption campaign provided cover for Mr. Xi to purge powerful rivals, tighten control over the military and police, and intimidate private business tycoons. The collective leadership that characterized the Chinese Communist Party for the past three decades, allowing for orderly and peaceful transfers of power every 10 years, has been dismantled, and a cult of personality has been built around Mr. Xi.
Meanwhile, freedom for everyday Chinese has shrunk dramatically. Control over the Internet has tightened, with critical comments (including on Mr. Xi’s new status) instantly removed and those who post them subject to arrest. Since 2015, more than 200 human rights lawyers have been detained and, in many cases, tortured, coerced into confessions and subjected to show trials. The regime’s thugs have even extended their operations abroad, abducting critics in countries such as Thailand and spiriting them to prison cells in China.
Under Mao and the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, absolute dictatorship failed. But Mr. Xi envisions a new version driven by 21st-century technologies, such as artificial intelligence, in which his regime is investing heavily. Each citizen will be given a “social credit” score, with demerits for unapproved behavior detected by cyber-monitoring or cameras with facial recognition. Through its “Belt and Road” initiative, which foresees the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in countries across Eurasia, the regime will build its global influence and promote its political model — which, Mr. Xi said in a speech last October, “offers a new option for other countries.”
Mr. Xi is offering a fundamental challenge to the liberal model of human governance at a time when its greatest defender, the United States, is hamstrung by a president who appears not to believe in it. Asked about China this past Friday, President Trump boasted about what he called a “quite extraordinary” personal relationship with Mr. Xi. He had nothing to say about Mr. Xi’s ruthless consolidation of power. The many people around the world who understand and fear the challenge this represents will have to find ways to defend liberal democracy without assistance from the White House.