China: President Xi Jinping, a.k.a. Chairman Mao 2.0

China: President Xi Jinping, a.k.a. Chairman Mao 2.0

With the virtual certainty that Chinese President Xi Jinping can now rule until he chooses to step down, J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks at the global implications for this decision by the Chinese Communist Party to have one hand on the tiller for a long time to come.

Many years ago, in a neighbouring East Asian nation, I watched several Chinese diplomats assiduously “work the room” at a conference, schmoozing a whole gaggle of foreign policy scholars and analysts who were attending a conference on the future of East Asia at a time of Soviet political change under Mikhail Gorbachev.

Noting that demonstration of real diligence China-style, another American diplomat remarked on just how skilled the Chinese were being at their task at that scholarly meeting. And my slightly flip response was, “Well, they should be, those Chinese have been doing this kind of thing for about 5,000 years. They have had lots of time to practise!”

Actually, that was a bit of an exaggeration, as it had really only been about 3,000 or so years since a Chinese national government had been dealing with foreign supplicants representing other nations in the region. But, still, the larger truth is that they really have been in the game for a very long time, and almost always, they have been doing it with an eye on the long haul. And almost always, too, it was with an implicit but deep understanding that China was structurally the core political structure of the world. It was the central nation, the “Middle Kingdom”, around which the rest of the international constellation was arrayed. And this has been true, generally, except during periods of time when China was weak and divided, such as the 150 years of the 19thand the first half of the 20th centuries or so when their state was increasingly being overwhelmed by avaricious trade or military outsiders from the West or Japan.

Moreover, as a part of their sense of things in which China is the centre of the world, when they have wanted to do so, the Chinese have been among the best in demonstrating a high level of snobbishness and insouciance directed at their foreign interlocutors, as with Chinese officials who dismissed trade with Great Britain at the end of the 18th century, shrugging off the outrageous idea that the British had anything to offer China in exchange for its valuable goods.

(The British eventually found a commodity, opium, raised in India and transported to the treaty ports on the Chinese coast, for which there was virtually an infinite demand, even though it was ruled illegal by the Chinese government.)

Alternatively, there has been their unparalleled ability to deliver an overwhelming level of pomp and circumstance designed to astonish and amaze (and overwhelm and cow) VIP foreign visitors – just ask Donald Trump, or Richard Nixon.

Watch: Nixon in China (opera)

But whatever the Chinese have been doing, except during periods of internally driven, explosive, disruptive economic and political turmoil, such as in the “Great Leap Forward” in the 1950s, or the Cultural Revolution” around a decade later that convulsed the country and absorbed much of the nation’s energies, Chinese leadership has been able to show a real sense they are thinking way ahead, with a long time horizon in mind. And the point of such a historical and future view is that now they are trying hard to outpace competitors in economics, science, political and international relationships, and military and security advances beyond their immediate neighbourhood.

Late last year, at the Chinese Communist Party’s congress, the personal stamp of the country’s president and party leader, Xi Jinping – his thoughts on the nature of the nation, its ideology and governance – was inserted into the party’s constitution, the first time something like this had been done since the era of Mao Zedong. That signified something big was under way. But still more has come to be. Just the other day, the Communist Party’s central committee voted that the two-term limit for presidents/party heads should be abolished. And in the absence of some kind of unprecedented, extraordinary, unimaginable rebellion by party and government, that is what will now be the case for President Xi Jinping.

This presumably means that Xi will be able to rule China until he decides he no longer wishes to do so, or he passes away. This will give China a government of great stability, a feature of the Chinese political universe that sources say the Chinese believe will be important in guiding the country’s future in a turbulent world. This will be true in a period that moves well beyond the time when there was just one hyper-power, America, and everyone else was racing to stay in the game. (As a kind of model, perhaps, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has found a way around the Russian constitution’s term limits provision by having inserted a tame hand puppet of a president in between his first two terms and then his current one – and presumably on into the one he will win in a walk, later this month.)

A lifetime Xi presidency also means he will be on hand to help guide – probably very, very closely – his country in its efforts in economic and geopolitical terms as well. Key among these include a serious government commitment to shift the country’s growth model from one that is driven by external exports to one increasingly dependent on domestic demand. In addition, there is the government’s encouragement of private businesses closely tied to government departments in seeking advances in information technology and AI, solar energy, and mag-lev and autonomous transport, among other areas.

At a more strategic level, a key Xi initiative has been the Chinese “Belt and Road” initiative, targeting countries throughout Central Asia, Southeast Asia and on to the Indian Ocean littoral, as a way of drawing in trade and economic links with a whole roster of nations with China through growing exports and trade agreements, infrastructure investment and generously soft loans, and related approaches. (This is an effort that has been designed in part to move into the void that the US heedlessly and quite thoughtlessly created from the new administration’s foolish withdrawal from its own initiative – the TransPacific Partnership.)

In geopolitical terms, the Chinese, of course, have continued to consolidate their hold on those specks of territory, strategically located in the South China Sea. Sovereignty over those islands has been in dispute for hundreds of years whenever anyone remembered they were there – including a recent decision by the international court that handles maritime issues that did not acknowledge Chinese ownership, despite that old map and its seven-dashed line the Chinese have used as the basis for their argument about sovereignty over those flyspeck islands.

Regardless the international legal context, the Chinese have continued their work on military facilities, including an artificial harbour and landing fields, and permanently stationed military personnel. Moreover, the Chinese are continuing their efforts to develop a true blue water navy, rather than a littoral defence perimeter, complete with aircraft carriers and related technology. All of this is being backed up by strenuous efforts to reach parity – or better – in military utilisation of AI and other information technology. While no one seriously predicts the Chinese military efforts will supplant the US military edge in the region – in tandem with long-term allies – at least in the short run, the real concern for American defence planners must be the steady progress of Chinese defence efforts over the longer term.

In analysing this unexpected development in Chinese politics, the New York Times noted:

President Xi Jinping’s efforts to indefinitely extend his rule as China’s leader, announced on Sunday, raised fresh fears in China of a resurgence of strongman politics — and fears abroad of a new era of hostility and gridlock. Mr Xi, who has been president since 2013, has tried to cultivate an image as a benevolent father figure who is working to promote China’s peaceful rise.

But the ruling Communist Party’s decision to open a path to a third term for Mr Xi heightened a sense of resentment in China among academics, lawyers, journalists and business executives. Many have watched warily as Mr Xi has used his power to imprison scores of dissidents, stifle free speech and tighten oversight of the economy, the world’s second largest. Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing who is critical of Mr Xi, said the change to the constitution would turn Mr Xi into a ‘super-president. He will have no limits on his power,’ he said.

Government censors rushed to block criticism of the decision. Internet memes depicted Mr Xi as an emperor with no regard for the rule of law and showed a portrait of Mr Xi replacing Mao’s hallowed image in Tiananmen Square. Another repurposed an ad for Durex condoms, adding a tag line — ‘Twice is not enough’ — to poke fun at the idea of Mr Xi angling for a third term.

The party’s move comes as Mr Xi has proclaimed an era of China’s greatness, when the country, he says, will take what he sees as its rightful place as a top global power…

“ ‘China feels it is on the road to great power status and they want to perpetuate the trajectory they are on,’ said David Finkelstein, director of China Studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Va. Some analysts outside China said they worried that allowing Mr Xi one-man rule might worsen an increasingly tense relationship between the United States and China.

The party’s move comes as Mr Xi has proclaimed an era of China’s greatness, when the country, he says, will take what he sees as its rightful place as a top global power. Already, it is establishing military bases in the Western Pacific and Africa, building infrastructure across Asia, parts of Europe and Africa, and running what Mr Xi hopes will be the world’s No. 1 economy within two decades or sooner. Some analysts outside China said they worried that allowing Mr Xi one-man rule might worsen an increasingly tense relationship between the United States and China.”

Given that Xi will now be able to write his own ticket until he wants to retire to the countryside to tend prize peonies, write poetry, or complete his memoirs of his early years as an exchange visitor in the Midwestern American state of Iowa and his implacable rise to supreme power in the world’s most populous nation and one that has a self-defined mission to become primus inter pares, he will be right there in power to guide things along.

Given China’s growth trajectory over the past number of years, ever since it shucked off Mao-style autarchy and – effectively – its shared poverty and replaced it with Deng Xiaoping’s “to be rich is wonderful” approach of encouraging private enterprise within a tightly maintained governmental political system, this Chinese model seemingly poses a real global challenge to western style democratic capitalism.

With Xi at the helm for years to come, now, we may be witnesses of how such a competition pans out in the future. And it may force nations like America, as well as those in the EU and parts of East Asia to confront just how much political turmoil an economy can encompass successfully in the face of a relentless challenger. DM

Photo: Souvenirs with portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping and former Chinese leader Mao Zedong are displayed at a souvenir shop in Beijing, China, 26 February 2018. China will remove the constitutional restriction for the maximum number of terms the president and vice-president can serve, Chinese media reported on 25 February 2018, paving the way for President Xi Jinping to stay on beyond. EPA-EFE/ROMAN PILIPEY.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options