President for life? Xi Jinping's power grab is not good news

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the news coming out of the People’s Republic of China: The Second Plenum of the Communist Party’s Central Committee in January approved the scrapping of term limits for the post of President and Vice-President. This is being seen as the official permission for the current incumbent, Xi Jinping, to stay in power as mainland China’s leader for life. For decades, since Deng Xiaoping reformed China’s polity and economy, the President of the People’s Republic has served two five-year terms before handing over power to a chosen successor from the next generation of leaders. Deng famously declared that “the last thing I will be good for is to set up a system for retirement”. He also clearly explained why he sought to minimise the “over-concentration” of power within the communist system — because it limits the ability to broad-base decision-making, and makes poor policy choices more likely.

Mr Xi did not pick a successor last year, as tradition decreed he should; and now the official constitution is being changed to legitimise his seizure of absolute and permanent power. Other changes were also introduced, to solidify the Party’s control over Chinese society. For example, it was proposed that the constitution say that “the leadership of the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics”, and that the state should advocate “core socialist values”. Last year, “Xi Jinping Thought” was written into the constitution as a guiding feature and Mr Xi was officially designated “lingxiu”, or people’s leader, a term not used since the 1970s.

The communist Chinese system of governance has many flaws, including a lack of democratic accountability and an inbuilt intolerance for dissent. Yet it should be noted that for the past three decades and more it has succeeded in minimising turbulence within the political elite, successfully managed transitions of power, allowed for factional power-sharing and ensured a certain minimum capability among Beijing’s top leaders. Allowing Mr Xi to become President for life negates these achievements. It significantly increases the probability of both a disruptive build-up of dissent within the Party that subsequently destabilises the world economy, and an aggressive outlook towards foreign relations that will negatively impact China’s neighbours, including India.

That the authorities in Beijing are concerned about the response within their own society of these changes is clear from the fact that the announcement was made first in the English-language version of Xinhua news service and that various search terms within China were censored such as “Emperor Xi”, and even a phrase translating to “live forever and never grow old”. Chinese netizens got around the censorship by sharing images of the character Winnie-the-Pooh — a common satirical representation of Mr Xi — hugging a huge jar of honey, and saying “if you find something you love, never let go”. But for China’s neighbours, such as India, the concern will be deep. Mr Xi has shown himself willing to be confrontational in foreign policy and has a clear sense that China’s destiny is to dominate Asia, if not the world. His decision to stay in power indefinitely puts Beijing on a collision course with those countries, like India, that do not subscribe to this view.

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