• Diego Gilardoni

Xi Jinping a "New Emperor"

Interview with inews


Article originally published on inews.com.

China's President Xi Jinping's big power grab could be the sign of a weakening system.

By Leo Cendrowicz


The news that China has removed the term limits that prevent President Xi Jinping from clinging to power indefinitely, will alarm anyone with a sense of history.

From Julius Caesar to Napoleon Bonaparte and the European fascists of the 20th century, the experience seems to be that one-man rule rarely ends well.

Mr Xi’s power grab is being sold as something different. Chinese officials say that allowing him to stay in power beyond 2023 is the best way to ensure the continuity the nation requires to face a raft of political and economic challenges.


The tradition of limiting presidencies to 10 years emerged in the 1990s, when veteran leader Deng Xiaoping sought to avoid a repeat of the chaos that had marked the era of Mao Zedong and its immediate aftermath.

They include rising threats to the economy, a growing divide between urban and rural incomes and a growing list of environmental challenges that pose a clear danger to the health of many Chinese citizens.

In the words of the state-controlled newspaper China Daily, the lifting of the presidential term limit was needed “to perfect the party and the state leadership system”.

The proposal still has to be passed by delegates of the National People’s Congress at their annual meeting that begins on Monday. But its approval is considered little more than a rubber stamp.


“It means that Xi intends to stay around for some time,” says Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College in London.
“But it also raises the question of how workable single leadership will be, and what might happen after this era. And the longer there is no successor, the more destabilising it could prove to be.”

The move should not have come as a surprise. When Mr Xi was re-elected president and party chief for a second term at last October’s Communist Party Congress, he broke tradition when he failed to nominate a clear successor.

At the same time, his ideology was stamped into the party’s charter which was amended to include “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”.

Mr Xi is the son of one of the Communist Party’s founding fathers.

Born in 1953, he joined the party in 1974, climbing its ranks before assuming the leadership in 2013.


His administration has overseen economic reform, taken a much tougher line against corruption and cracked down hard on human rights.

The president has pursued a more assertive foreign policy in Asia and launched massive infrastructure programmes across the world as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

The tradition of limiting presidencies to 10 years emerged in the 1990s, when veteran leader Deng Xiaoping sought to avoid a repeat of the chaos that had marked the era of Mao Zedong and its immediate aftermath.


For the past two decades, China could point to collective leadership and the smooth succession from one leader to another as signs that it had defied the trap of dictatorship.

Concentrating power may speed reform in the short run, but it is a poor recipe for policymaking in the long term. The key question: who will dare will speak truth to Mr Xi?

The recent move to centralise so much authority in one person - Mr Xi - should be the antithesis of the nation’s professed commitment to collective leadership.

Mr Xi controls the main pillars of the Chinese state — the party, the government and the military.

In 2016 he was granted a special status by his party when he was anointed “Core Leader”. The following year he was formally recognised as the Communist party’s lingxiu - a reverential term for “leader” that was last used in the era of Mao Zedong and his successor Hua Guofeng.

After gently pulling back under Mr Xi’s predecessors, the Chinese propaganda machine has roared back into life over the past five years.


The president’s virtues are hailed at every opportunity by state media, business, local government and even celebrities. Any insult, perceived or otherwise, is punished severely.

News editors are under pressure to ensure each of his many titles is published correctly and the threat of heavy fines and internal punishment hangs over those who err.

The political climate means there is noticeably less debate in the media about concepts like democracy and civil society.


China’s internet censors have been deleting critical comments on social media platforms. Over the past week, this clampdown took an almost surreal turn as censors banned a range of search terms including “shameless”, “personality cult” and “Winnie the Pooh”, Mr Xi’s nickname.

In some sense, the west might be enabling Mr Xi. Reaction from Europe and America has been muted, despite perennial grumbles about democracy and human rights.

For the US, China is an essential ally in global flashpoints such as North Korea. For the European Union, it has become an unlikely beacon of stability on issues such as free trade and efforts to tackle climate change in the face of US President Donald Trump’s attacks on the consensus.


But despite the apparent concentration of his power, Mr Xi has not dispelled concerns about his leadership. Diego Gilardoni, the author of ‘Decoding China’, says it reflects weaknesses in the system.


“This consolidation of power might, in the short run, accelerate the reforms and help the country,” he says. “But, in the long run, an excessive concentration of power that doesn’t allow for dynamic renewal will suffocate the efforts to adapt China to the 21st century’s challenges.”

For all of the misgivings about Mr Xi’s power grab, even his harshest critics admit he is not an impulsive, hot-headed, or irrational leader.


As evidence analysts point to the people he is lining up for top jobs in his administration - capable, outward-looking officials such as Wang Qishan and Liu He.

But there are deeper concerns about whether Mr Xi’s undermining of collective rule will stifle the voices needed to challenge any potential missteps.

Concentrating power may speed reform in the short run, but it is a poor recipe for policymaking in the long term. The key question: who will dare will speak truth to Mr Xi?

“A longer period at the top does not necessarily mean stronger control,” says Tim Summers, a senior fellow at Chatham House and a lecturer at the Centre for China Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.


“The impact is going to be felt mostly in economic and social terms with Chinese companies going global. That is the real basis for China’s global influence, not the proclivities of its leader.”

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