Early in the 20th century, as China wrestled with revolution and democratic governance, a mercurial Qing general tried to restore the monarchy. Yuan Shikai emerged as the consensus candidate of the conservatives and the revolutionaries to lead the country to peace and unity at that crucial juncture. Both the Emperor in Beijing and the provisional president in Nanjing recommended that Yuan should be the first president of the Republic of China.
Following a series of ruthless actions, Yuan made himself president for life, and then announced a new imperial dynasty with himself as Emperor in 1915-16. This triggered a massive pushback, which was supported by Japan — and with Yuan’s friends in Europe busy with World War I, he was forced to abolish the newly announced monarchy and abdicate within three months.
On Sunday, within hours of the Chinese Communist Party clearing the decks for President Xi Jinping to stay in power for life, Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, had come alive with comparisons to the autocratic figure from a century ago. The establishment moved with alacrity, “Yuan Shikai” was censored.
What does the intended change in China’s constitution mean? Three minutes before 4 pm Beijing time Sunday, Xinhua reported: “The Communist Party of China Central Committee proposed to remove the expression that the President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms” from the country’s Constitution.”
Under the Chinese constitution currently, Xi, 64, who became President in 2013, will serve two terms, totalling 10 years. The amendment will enable him to stay on as President indefinitely beyond 2023. Comparisons have been made globally with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The move towards a single leader’s rule bucks the trend in China over the last four decades. The all-powerful Chairman Mao Zedong, whose Cultural Revolution brought death and hardships to tens of thousands of Chinese and pushed the country to civil war, is now widely acknowledged to have committed wrongs in governing the country. After Mao’s death in 1976, the communist party made the transition to “collective leadership”, where power was shared by a handful of high-ranking party officials. The transitions from Presidents Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping were smooth, Jiang and Hu both having served two five-year terms in office.
But Xi seems to be thinking differently.
In a 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks, an anonymous contact codenamed “Professor” described Xi to a US diplomat as an “exceptionally ambitious” man who had had his “eye on the prize” from early adulthood. Xi had a genuine sense of “entitlement”, Professor, a longtime friend of the then Vice-President, said — and believed that members of his generation were the “legitimate heirs” to the revolutionary achievements of their parents and, therefore, “deserve to rule China”. Xi, Professor said, “is not corrupt and does not care about money, but he could be corrupted by power”.
Early in Xi’s tenure, he was declared the party’s “core leader”, and Chinese state media was used to beef up his image to an extent that China-watchers say had not been seen since the Mao era. The “Xi Jinping Thought” was added to the CPC’s constitution at last year’s Party Congress. The Congress, which was expected to nominate younger leaders who could be seen as potential heirs in the powerful Standing committee, did not name anyone from the next generation. Many in New Delhi read this as a sign of Xi’s desire to stay as the chief of the party and of the country beyond 2023.
This was a departure from the convention created by his predecessors. The convention had been established as the CPC sought stability after the power struggles to replace first Mao, and then Deng Xiaoping. The faction-ridden CPC decided on “collective leadership” as the formula to balance contesting and competing aspirations.
In a column written for the The Lowy Institute, Richard McGregor, author of the award-winning The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, described Sunday’s announcement as “enormously significant”. Chinese politics, he said, “may be going back… to the Mao era of strongman rule”. Xi, he said, “of course, is not Mao, and Mao’s China is not today’s China, but that in many respects makes his removal of any restraints on staying in office all the more remarkable. However you read it, his centralisation of power does hark back to darker times in China”.
Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran told The Indian Express, “This was anticipated especially after Xi Jinping Thought was incorporated in the party constitution. The bigger question is what this says about the consolidation of his leadership. If he were really confident of his leadership status, would he need this? Deng Xiaoping was the undisputed leader even while having only a relatively innocuous formal position as President of the Chinese Bridge Players Society. Maybe Xi is insecure of his authority and the opposition that may be building up within the party which remains addicted to factionalism.”
Watchdog service FreeWeibo, reported that top searches that were blocked included “ascension to the throne”, “term limits”, and “Winnie the Pooh”, a reference to the cartoon character that has emerged as a popular mocking symbol of Xi on Chinese social media.
For New Delhi, a more powerful Xi is reason for greater wariness and concern.
Since March 2013, when he took charge, there have been three major faceoffs on border — Depsang in April 2013, Chumar in September 2014, and the two-and-a-half-month faceoff at Doklam in 2017. The muscle-flexing has been accompanied by more aggressive and proactive wooing of India’s neighbours, from Maldives to Sri Lanka, Nepal to Bangladesh. This approach has now found a framework within Xi’s One Belt One Road plan, which has been opposed by New Delhi, and questioned by the Americans, the Europeans and the Japanese. And there is, of course, the aggression and creeping expansionism in the South China Sea. If Xi becomes a Mao-style dictator, it may herald more frequent such incidents in contested domains. Cheng Li, in his 2016 book, Chinese Politics in the Xi Jinping Era: Reassessing Collective Leadership, said Xi’s leadership represented the “end of collective leadership” and the “re-emergence of strongman politics”.
Paramount Leader, 1978-89
Father of China’s economic reforms who envisioned “socialism with Chinese characteristics” — that is, adapting a market economy to China’s situation. At the heart of Deng’s programme was “reform and opening up”; the policy of “four modernisations”, first mooted under Chairman Mao Zedong, became a major slogan.
Gen Secy of CPC, 1989-2002
President of PRC from 1993 to 2003; Chairman of Central Military Commission until 2004. Put forth the idea of the Three Represents: that CPC must represent “requirements of development of China’s advanced productive forces, orientation of development of China’s advanced culture, fundamental interests of China’s people”.
Gen Secy of CPC, 2002-12
President of PRC from 2003 to 2013; Chairman of Central Military Commission until 2012. Gave the slogan of a “harmonious society”, featuring “democracy, rule of law, equity, justice, sincerity, amity, vitality”, and of the “Three Supremes” for judges, procurators — that party’s cause, people’s interest, constitution and law would be supreme.
Gen Secy of CPC since 2012, President since 2013
In 2012, Xi spoke of the “Chinese Dream”, which has since been manifested most visibly in the spectacularly ambitious One Belt One Road. In his marathon speech at the CPC’s 19th National Congress in October 2017, he announced the dawn of a “new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics”.