Commentary: Xi Jinping's unsettling approach to governing modern China

Commentary: Xi Jinping's unsettling approach to governing modern China

The removal of formal term limits on China's presidency comes as no surprise but a highly personalist rule will make it trickier for outsiders to grasp Chinese politics, says one observer.

A TV screen shows a live news broadcast of Chinese President Xi Jinping introducing his Politburo S
A TV screen shows a live news broadcast of Chinese President Xi Jinping introducing his Politburo Standing Committee in Beijing, China on Oct 25, 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

NEW YORK: On Feb 9, 1796, Qianlong, the sixth emperor of the Qing dynasty and the leader of China at its pre-modern peak of power, size and prestige, abdicated in the 61st year of his reign in favour of his 35-year-old son.

Though, until his death three years later, Qianlong continued to exercise power from behind the scenes, his abdication helped to preserve public respect for the imperial office. 

On Feb 25, 2018, Xi Jinping took a decidedly different approach. In successfully pushing for a removal of the formal term limits on the presidency of the People’s Republic of China, the 64-year-old Xi has done two major things.


Most obviously, he has set himself up to continue ruling for the rest of his life. 

But more importantly, he has also fractured the final remnants of the post-Mao Zedong Communist Party leadership consensus forged in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In so doing, Xi has fractured what remains of global models and understanding of the incentives and functioning of Chinese politics, and opened up a new dangerous fissure in Chinese elite politics. 

The implications are enormous.

The economic, social and human disasters of the Mao years left the leadership of the party understandably wary of the concentration of too much power in the hands of one person for too long.

When Deng Xiaoping emerged from the succession struggle that arose after Mao’s death - eventually outmanoeuvring Mao’s handpicked successor Hua Guofeng - Deng built a political consensus to support his economic changes that emphasised the need for limits on time in office, as well as what has often been termed “collective leadership”.

Xi Jinping's (R) tightening grip on China had already earned the leader comparisons to Mao
Xi Jinping's previous moves had already earned the leader comparisons to Mao Zedong, but they came into even sharper focus after the party paved the way for him to assume the presidency indefinitely. (Photo: AFP/Greg Baker)

This latter idea enshrined the importance of formal representation by, and negotiation among, various factions within the party at its highest levels, especially on the Standing Committee of the Politburo (PSC) - the organ that became something of an executive committee during the Deng reform period.

Even in China’s system, there are competing interests and ideas about the direction of rule, and Deng’s collective leadership model kept the peace among them for decades, while China prospered under his policies.


Since Xi’s appointment as vice-chairman in 2008, and especially after his accession to the chairmanship and presidency in 2012, Xi Jinping has given every indication of an interest in overturning this model.

Even while still nominally behind Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao in the hierarchy, he regularly stole the international spotlight from his bosses.

Upon becoming president, Xi altered the composition of the PSC, shrinking it from nine to seven, and broke with previous norms advocating balance on the committee to instead strongly favour his clique.

READ: A commentary on China's new leadership line-up after the 19th Party Congress in October.

Last October, he successfully manoeuvred to have his name and ideas added to the party constitution, an honour that was denied to both of his predecessors. He was also named the “core” of the party, a title closer to something used for Mao than anyone else since.

The move to eliminate term limits for the presidency merely continues the trend.

China's President Xi Jinping gives a speech at the opening session of the Chinese Communist
China's President Xi Jinping gives a speech at the Chinese Communist Party's five-yearly Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in October 2017. (Photo: AFP/WANG ZHAO)


One immediate effect of this could be that analysis of Chinese politics will become even trickier for outsiders.

A study of China by outsiders has relied on second-hand and indirect information filtered through a set of ideas and assumptions of the way Chinese elite politics functioned, in order to assess intent and purpose.

But these analyses were all centred on an understanding of the high-level consensus forged by Deng that held the leadership together, and set predictable constraints on their actions and interests. 

By terminating this set of rules at the highest levels, Xi has sent a message that anyone elevated by that system may no longer be protected by it.

Alliances and patronage networks may be rewritten and reordered, and for reasons that will be hard to discern from the outside. Analysts may end up being somewhat more in the dark in the near future than we were in the recent past.


This also means the political direction taken by China could tend toward more extreme actions overall, which is often a factor of highly personalist rule.

Despite China’s cultivated outward monolithic political appearance and Xi’s actual popularity among many, stemming partly from his war on graft, there remain significant pockets of dissatisfaction with his policy direction within the party.

These groups have little chance of organising any kind of resistance to Xi at the moment, but new rules might allow reorganisations, purges or crackdowns that even in the recent past might have seemed off the table.

One-man rule is unstable at the top, and the new consensus will shift attitudes below. It will be unsettled.

People walk in front of a poster showing a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing
People walk in front of a poster showing a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China on Feb 26, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

READ: A commentary on Xi Jinping, China's new revolutionary hero.

One crucial caveat to this change is to remember Xi simultaneously occupies several positions in the hierarchy, and the change in presidential term limits affects only his position in the formal government, not his position as chairman of the party - the ultimate source of political power.

One possible interpretation of this is that Xi felt his consolidation at the party congress last year was sufficient to position him there, and this is the follow-up.

Whatever the case, the accumulated effect of these changes has all but guaranteed that as long as Xi is alive and the party is in power, he will be in charge of the country.

His reign so far has been a series of signals to the world and to China itself that business as-was is now over.

Peter Marino is the founder and policy director of The Metropolitan Society for International Affairs, an NYC-based think tank, and senior researcher at the Global Narratives Institute.

Source: Reuters/sl