On Friday, China's ruling Communist Party put forth a proposal that seeks to do away with the constitutional clause that limits the President's and the Vice President's tenure to just two terms in the office. This proposal essentially paves way for the Chinese President Xi Jinping to continue in office well beyond 2023, a scenario which was speculated much before this announcement.
The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, held last year, had laid the groundwork for President Xi's long-term stay in the office. None of the 7 Politburo members constituting the 19th Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the country's supreme decision making body, belong to the sixth generation leaders (born in the 1960s), such that the lack thereof pointed towards a no apparent heir to Xi Jinping post 2023. The proposal to remove the formal two term clause only further underlines Xi's willingness to hold onto power beyond the stipulated time.
The rise and rise in the status of Xi Jinping begets a deeper understanding of the manner in which Xi has consolidated power during his regime. After ascending to Presidency in 2012, Xi was lucky in that the economic reforms and further liberalisation of markets undertaken by previous Presidents had started bearing fruits under his tenure. Bolstered by a good economic performance averaging between 7-8%, despite a global slowdown, Xi sought to soften his control over markets and tighten his control over politics. A favourable macroeconomic scenario made sure that Xi faced little resistance in his political initiatives which targeted corrupt officials and sought to undertake bold socio-economic reforms.
Xi's official and much publicised stance against corruption, accompanied by a crackdown on over a million officials, hundreds of high level leaders, including actions against Sun Zhengcai, a former Chongqing Communist Party General Secretary and Politburo member, made him enormously popular among the Chinese people. This domestic popularity was also used by Xi to stamp out any kind of political rivalry, and strengthen his power and status in the party. Xi used his stance against corruption to cut down on the coterie and give more powers to a small number of party-men who were loyal to him.
In 2016, Xi's status as the undisputed leader of the party was institutionalised when he was awarded the title of “core leader” by the party. While it did not grant him with any exceptional powers, it was a major symbolic gesture to ensure that Xi was treated as a dominant party supremo. The announcement of “core leader” made sure that Xi's attempts at economic, social, political and military reforms did not face any kind of resistance from within the party.
Previously, only three leaders, including Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin have been given this title. By granting himself with the title of the “core leader”, Xi has also tried to establish himself as the cult figure in the party, similar to both Mao and Deng.
The nature of Xi's authority has therefore undergone a remarkable transformation, moving from the customs based traditional forms of authority to a cult based charismatic authority. What has added to Xi's charisma is the amount of support he enjoys from the Chinese nationals, which makes it difficult for others to pose any kind of challenge to his regime. To exercise his charismatic authority more effectively, Xi has sought to further institutionalise his stature in the party.
Inclusion of Xi Jinping thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the constitution was one of the many such methods employed by him. Xi's popularity also soared after he took some tough positions on matters of international importance. His assertive and more muscular foreign policy, including the attempts to gain control of sea lanes in South China Sea, the launch of the Border and Road Initiative and the general attempts to expand the country's territorial reach, have contributed favourably to his political grandstanding.
With the announcement to do away with the two term clause for the President and the Vice President, Xi is all set to rule the country indefinitely. While it may contribute to his power tremendously, the nature of Xi's reign and some of the most persistent challenges facing China today, may also lead to a fall in his popularity within the party.
The hallmark of Xi's governance have been economic reforms, high rates of growth, strengthening of military, silencing of dissent and therefore democracy and heightened tensions with neighbours and other superpowers. Xi has been able to successfully capitalise the ferocious Chinese nationalism. But this has been accompanied by a surge in economic numbers, something that provided the Chinese with economic security and served to quieten dissent. However, if the tables were to turn on the economic front for China, Xi may no longer look as powerful in the party.
Xi's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative was undertaken to fuel economic growth in China by undertaking infrastructure and related projects in countries abroad, Xi has sought to export Chinese manpower and manufacturing capabilities, along with Chinese capital. The degree of the success of the BRI to a large extent will determine the future course for President Xi.
If the BRI fails to spur the economic numbers, or create sustainable jobs, the initiative could also backfire. The BRI is already facing time and cost overruns in several countries. While a striking number of projects stand cancelled, another significant number are facing major delays. The finite amount of Chinese investments in these countries will also hit a dead end if these projects do not yield the desired results.
China's muscular foreign policy has also evoked strong reactions from countries across the world. The challenge to Chinese hegemony will grow stronger as other countries in the region begin to bandwagon with the US and balance its powers in the region. In effect, China may be positioning itself as a the next major power after the US under Xi, but this is bound to invite more face-offs, resulting in frequent situations where China may have to back out or get involved in regional conflicts to assert its primacy. Either ways, China's foreign policy misadventures under Xi will come with significant domestic costs, a price that the party may or may not be willing to pay.
While China has embraced the rise of Xi Jinping, from the President to a probable Emperor in the future, the rest of the world may need to chalk out a course of action for future scenarios involving a more assertive China, under a more powerful Xi. All this, while hoping for the best.
The author is a Phd Researcher, International Politics, JNU