BEIJING — Almost exactly five years ago, a newly anointed President Xi Jinping met his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and declared that they shared similar “personalities.”
The comment, reported by the Kremlin news service but not by Chinese state media, went largely unnoticed at the time. But on Sunday, the parallels between the two leaders were too stark to ignore.
China’s Communist Party is to abolish a two-term limit on the presidency, state media announced, potentially opening the door for Xi to rule for life.
In that simple step, the Communist Party showed that it has forgotten one of the main lessons of the despotic rule of Mao Zedong, wrote Jerome Cohen, a Chinese legal expert and New York University professor, in a blog post.
The two-term limit was inserted into the constitution after the brutal and chaotic Cultural Revolution to prevent a return of one-man dictatorship. “Its abolition signals the likelihood of another long period of severe repression,” Cohen wrote.
There was no fanfare surrounding the news here: Indeed, it was buried within an article about much less portentous constitutional arrangements on Page 2 of Monday’s print edition of the party newspaper, the People’s Daily.
Censors also got to work to prevent any popular debate. The freeweibo.com website, which monitors content censored from Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, cited key phrases that were being deleted, including “serving another term in office,” “amendment to the constitution,” and “ascending the throne.”
Some people reacted with humor, circulating a Disney Weibo post from 2013 showing Winnie-the-Pooh gleefully hugging a huge pot of honey, with the caption, “Find the thing you love and stick with it.” Winnie-the-Pooh is a common nickname for Xi. The bear’s name, and Disney, were also among the leading censored terms Monday, freeweibo.com showed.
Li Datong, a former editor who lost his job more than a decade ago in a row over censorship, issued a public letter Monday calling on delegates to next month’s annual meeting of the National People’s Congress to vote down the proposal.
“China has to move forward, not go backward,” he said. “China’s political civilization has finally reached such a level, how can you return to the Mao era?”
Experts said the news would send a chill through the Chinese legal and academic community, already beset by the most severe crackdown on dissent and free speech in decades.
But the implications are likely to be felt around the world, they said, noting that Xi has already fostered a sharp rise in Chinese nationalism, bolstered by a sense of grievance at historical “humiliations” by foreign powers and a burning desire to restore the nation’s central position on the world stage.
He has not followed Putin’s example by invading or annexing parts of a neighboring country, but nationalism is such a central part of his rule that it is hard not to expect anything but a steady ratcheting up of China’s demands for respect and recognition of its various territorial claims, analysts said.
“Xi is a big admirer of Putin,” said Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and an expert on China’s politics. This nationalist agenda fits well with rising nationalism among China’s youth, he added.
“The most reliable legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party is nationalism,” Lam said. “Nationalism is very important to both the legitimacy of the party and Xi himself.”
Putin, of course, did not change Russia’s constitution but maneuvered around it by installing a loyal ally in Dmitry Medvedev to serve as president for one term, while he retained the real power as the country’s prime minister — before returning in 2012 for a third term as president.
But Xi places considerable stress on the law as a justification for, and tool of, Communist Party rule. “No organization or individual has the power to overstep the constitution or the law,” he told a meeting of the party’s central leadership on Saturday. In other words, if Xi stays, the constitution has to reflect that.
Nor is Xi a man to rule behind the scenes, as Deng Xiaoping did in the 1980s, balancing competing interests but holding ultimate authority. Xi is a man who demands to be center stage, with a firm grip on all the levers of power, experts said.
That power actually stems from Xi’s role as general secretary of the Communist Party, bolstered by his status as chairman of the Central Military Commission.
There is no term limit on his role as general secretary. But his global stature also depends on his title as president — and Xi is not about to surrender that spotlight to a Medvedev-type subordinate, especially one who might one day grow too big for his boots, experts said.
The way that the careers of Internet czar Lu Wei, a man who courted the public eye in meetings with people such as Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, or Chongqing Party boss Sun Zhengcai, were abruptly ended by corruption charges dramatically illustrated that Xi will brook no rivals.
There is a potential upside to all of this. 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 in this vision, there is no room for checks and balances, or for dissent or protest, experts said.
The risks are obvious. 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.
That is not to suggest that Xi is about to become Mao and implement a new Cultural Revolution, or stage mass executions like Stalin, although the human rights environment is worse than at any point since the aftermath of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, activists said.
But autocratic rulers who do not allow feedback from the grass roots tend to make mistakes.
“Academics, think tank experts, writers, and artists will not make public statements at odds with, or even moderately critical of, Xi-ist doctrine,” Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, wrote in a discussion on the ChinaFile website.
Their silence, he wrote, “will mean that the Communist Party cannot receive timely, accurate policy feedback.”
Increased pressure on officials to deliver on targets could lead to more falsification of data, wrote Yanmei Xie at Gavekal Dragonomics in a client note, or more clumsy and unsettling attempts to demonstrate compliance at all costs. That’s a real risk in a country whose economic growth figures are already largely discredited, and where Mao was told grain production was booming during a famine that killed tens of millions of people.
The Trivium consultancy in Beijing headlined its client note Monday with a simple quote from Deng:
“To build the fate of a country on the renown of one or two people is very unhealthy and very dangerous.”
Shirley Feng and Amber Ziye Wang contributed to this report.