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Xi is no longer 'the first among equals' in China; just the first

Xi is no longer 'the first among equals' in China; just the first
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On Sunday, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party formally introduced the proposal to revise the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China.

Submitted to the National People’s Congress, the proposal will remove the term limitations on the presidency once approved, thus opening the doors to a permanent presidency for Chinese President Xi Jinping.

People expect Xi to stay in power beyond his second term, although Beijing carefully calibrated the timing for that question not to be answered until five years later.

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From the view of pluralism, constitutionalism and liberalism, it is difficult not to see such a constitutional revision as a historical regression. After all, the two-term limit was institutionalized in the 1982 constitution precisely because of the disastrous Cultural Revolution that Chairman Mao unleashed by himself and for himself.

 

Removing the term limits will open President Xi to non-expiring and unchecked power. Together with Xi’s many other political moves, they offset and aim to destroy the delicate political balance the Chinese Communist Party spent decades to cultivate in the form of collective leadership.

Xi is no longer “the first among equals,” a term in the past used to describe the paramount leader among the Politburo Standing Committee members. He is the first. There is no equal.

The removal of the term limit also raises critical questions over the future power succession in China, perhaps the trickiest issue for Communist states and authoritarian states. The system of intergenerational appointment is completely abandoned as Xi announced no heir-apparent during the 19th Party Congress last year and arrested one of the candidates for corruption and political conspiracy.

It remains unclear how the sensitive issue will be handled and people familiar with Chinese history are vividly recalling how power transitions had always been a main source of violence, political instability and national chaos.

What is happening in China appears to be the latest manifestation of a global trend of growing authoritarianism. As leaders grow increasingly dissatisfied and frustrated with the constraints of their domestic political systems, they try to circumvent the existing political institutions and replace them with more convenient and seemingly more efficient ways beyond supervision and check-and-balance.

The expansion of personal power over the political institutions is the most unnerving. But China is not alone. Russia, Turkey and even India are all on a similar path. The Chinese would like to argue that the anti-establishment Trump administration is in the same boat.

Strongman leaders reinforce the legitimacy of each other, as their peoples cheer their own strong leader on the world stage. In this sense, Putin allegedly has been a key motivation for Xi’s power grab given how much admiration Putin has harvested from the Chinese public.

People who hope for Xi to engineer a political reform once he controls maximum power might want to tone down their optimism. For China observers, the centralization of power by a given Chinese leader always raises two different scenarios about the prospect for political liberalization.

It is argued that a leader without sufficient authority will not be able to push difficult political reforms due to the internal splits and oppositions by interest groups. Chinese theorists have constantly used that logic to justify the authoritarian tendencies and policies by their leaders, painting a rosy picture of upcoming political reform installed and implemented by the strongman.

While no one can eliminate that possibility, the record of political crackdown in the past five years in China inspires little confidence. Without substantial evidence to suggest otherwise, it would be naïve to assume that the Chinese leader who achieves maximum authoritarian power will just give it up willingly.

Foreign policy, especially U.S.-China relations, will be a main arena affected by Xi’s newly minted power status. As China’s strongman leading the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Xi cannot afford to be seen as weak or making concessions to hostile foreigners, especially not to the Americans and certainly not publicly.

The assertive foreign policy of China is a manifestation of the Chinese leader’s need for global recognition, which in turn demonstrates his supreme strength and wisdom and justifies his legitimacy in a meritocratic system.

It is foreseeable that after all dusts settle down after the March congressional sessions in China, the Trump administration and the Chinese will enter a new stage of strategic maneuver and contest. Only this time, Xi will be even more confident and ambitious.

Yun Sun is a senior associate with the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center. Her expertise is in Chinese foreign policy, U.S.-China relations and China's relations with neighboring countries and authoritarian regimes.