In March 2018, the National People’s Congress, the People’s Republic of China’s parliament, passed changes to China’s constitution. Among the changes, such as setting up the National Supervisory Commission and replacing the term “legal system” with “rule of law,” one amendment especially stood out: the removal of term limits for both the president and vice president, allowing China’s strongman President Xi Jinping to stay in office as long as he pleases. The vote was, more or less, a rehearsed performance; of roughly 3,000 members, 2,958 voted in favour, while two delegates voted against the change and three abstained.
From Chaos to Order After the tumultuous Cultural Revolution and the death of chairman Mao Zedong in 1976, China implemented a two-term limit on the presidency under Deng Xiaoping in 1982. Set in place to prevent the rise of a charismatic and powerful leader, such as Xi, Deng argued that term limits and a mandatory retirement age, together with delegating authority from the Communist Party to government agencies, would decentralise authority, regularise political life and check dictatorial power.
The aim for these massive changes was to promote an institutionalised collective leadership and a peaceful transition of power. Both of Deng’s successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, were consensus leaders in uneventful periods of collective leadership. In their own ways, they further propagated the terms articulated by Deng. Deng’s “hiding one’s strengths and biding one’s time” turned into Jiang’s “Three Represents” and evolved into Hu’s concept of a “harmonious society.” The installed amendments paid off, at least until 2012 when Xi assumed office.
Shift in Power After decades of institutionalised collective leadership, Xi has appeared on the political stage with the goal to return to a personalistic dictatorship. Having amassed a cult-like following–the Chinese affectionately call him Xi dada or Uncle Xi-Xi has taken control of the People’s Liberation Army, while eliminating his political opponents through a large-scale, anti-corruption campaign.
Further, his political theory, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” was added to the Preamble of the Constitution as a new guideline, and his presence has been likened to chairman Mao. Eschewing the tradition of peaceful transition of power by not presenting an “heir-in-the-making” at the 19th National Congress in 2017, China observers were not surprised by the constitutional amendments and knew that change was imminent.
This rise in power for Xi entails several implications, both for China on a domestic level and for the world internationally. Domestically, Xi might appear as the man who single-handedly holds all the power. However, Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, an expert and professor of the Department of Chinese Studies at the University of Vienna, argues that this picture is only true on its surface. Though Xi managed to remove some officials during his anti-corruption campaign, but did not root them out entirely, Weigelin-Schwiedrzik said that Xi is constrained. He has to suppress the remainders of those factions he didn’t manage to eliminate completely while balancing the interests of the remaining officials within the Communist Party of China (CPC).
Furthermore, some results of Xi’s extensive anti-corruption campaign can backfire. Whenever it is uncovered that a company with close ties to the CPC is engaging in corrupt behaviour, it immediately puts the efforts of President Xi under a suspicious light and raises the question of how the campaign was used as a means to eliminate his political opponents.
On the international scene, we have witnessed a shift in China’s stance, the most obvious in its rhetoric. Under Deng, the foreign policy maxim was to “observe calmly, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly, hide our capacities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile and never claim leadership.”
This has drastically changed after Xi’s rise to power. China’s core national interests have been redefined, among which territorial integrity and national reunification with Taiwan can be found. These core national interests are red lines that are not to be negotiated, questioned or transgressed.
In 2014, Xi stated that, “[China longs] for peace dearly, but at any time and under any circumstances, we will not give up defending our legitimate national interests and rights and will not sacrifice our core national interests.”
China no longer stands by passively and watches world politics unfold but seeks to take an active stance and shape them according to its designs. Xi has nurtured new catchphrases to “strive for achievements” and the “Chinese Dream,” an ambitious, albeit vague, desire to “rejuvenate the nation.”
China’s increased assertiveness can especially be seen in its behaviour toward its neighbours. Paying lip-service to develop a potential code of conduct with the littoral states to manage maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea goes hand-in-hand with the military build-up of the People’s Liberation Army. Moreover, China has consolidated four of its maritime law enforcement agencies into the new China Coast Guard to better exert its influence and control within the approximately 90 percent of territory it claims in the South China Sea.
Fulfilling a Dream The prospect of Xi’s life-long presidency enables him to further his stronghold to work toward the Chinese Dream and raise China to the status of a great power, Weigelin-Schwiedrzik explained, thus ending the hurtful memory of China’s “Century of Humiliation” under western influence from the 1840s.
With rising turmoil within China’s borders, due to an aging population, stagnating market growth, rising unemployment and an ever-expanding rift between the rich and poor, the Chinese Dream together with the One Belt, One Road Initiative serves Xi well to rally the population behind a common goal while overlooking the domestic tensions. Under Xi’s guidance, it is now more likely that the Chinese Dream will be fulfilled, and China will emerge on the world stage as a great power by 2049–just in time to celebrate 100 years of Communist Party rule.