Xi Jinping at the apex of power?

by Straton Papagianneas

On 25/02 Xinhua published proposed changes to the State Constitution ahead of the upcoming National People’s Congress (NPC) early March. The proposal that attracted the most attention in Western media and among netizens was the one to remove the two-term limit for President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This proposal stimulated heated discussions among the China-watching community and China scholars. General Secretary Xi Jinping wanting to stay on longer than 2022 was not a surprise, however, more surprising was the fact he pushed for this so hastily. One would expect this to happen more near the end of his second five-year term.

However, it must be mentioned that the removal of this term-limit does not change much. Inherently, there was nothing that prevented previous Chinese leaders to maintain a large amount of influence in the decision-making processes of the Party. The title of State President is not necessarily required for that. There are no official term limits on the office of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) or Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). For example, Jiang Zemin handed over the presidency to Hu Jintao in 2002, yet maintained considerable influence behind the scenes thanks to his position as Chairman of the CMC (which he only left in 2005) and personal ties and connections. Xi’s influence does not stem from state titles, but from his position as General Secretary, as Chairman of the CMC, and having key allies in key positions within both party and state.

Furthermore, this move must be seen in contrast to previous undertakings that have introduced collectivisation of Chinese leadership and separation of party and state. With this latest action, Xi has thrown away any pretence of respecting those previous norms. In fact, the move proves that institutional norms never ran deep. Even though Deng Xiaoping (China’s paramount leader until his death in 1997) introduced the collective leadership and limited terms to prevent that one man could amass dominating power over the rest of the Chinese leadership, only Hu Jintao really adhered to this when he relinquished all titles to Xi in 2012. Both Deng and Jiang never respected the principles enough to adhere to them.

Most importantly, it has narrowed the CPC’s legitimacy to Xi’s sole leadership. The message this sends is that only Xi can guide the PRC towards achieving its goals by 2025 (Made in China 2025), 2035 (becoming a modern socialist country), and possibly even 2049-2050 (becoming a prosperous, powerful, democratic, harmonious and beautiful socialist modern country). The removal of term-limits is a means to and end: it is as if only by holding on to the three titles that he can ensure that his policy gets accepted and implemented. This move can be interpreted as the further consolidation of Xi’s power to decide on the direction of the country.

However, the question remains why this move was deemed necessary. Xi’s power was already unquestionable, the incorporation of his Thought into the party Constitution is evidence enough. The title of State President means little compared to that. It could be that Xi being able to maintain his titles in compliance with not only CPC rules but also with State law could give extra legitimacy to his position. Xi has proven legal compliance – for what it’s worth – is important to him. With this, we should assume that titles do matter – at least to Xi– and that he is not willing to give up any of them even though he would maintain immense behind-the-scenes influence. Ultimately, it gives Xi an extra tool to maintain his power and influence.

Contradictorily, this could possibly mean that Xi’s influence is not as strong as previously thought. There is also an argument that this move reveals a certain degree of vulnerability.  What internal counterforces have made him empower his status so hastily and risk latent internal and popular backlash? Was there strong enough resistance against his vision for the country from inner interest groups that he deemed it necessary to empower himself even further? Or did he simply not have enough political capital to push hard for faster implementation of his policies?

Paradoxically, making such a move in the name of continuity could potentially have a destabilising effect. Equating the prosperity of an entire nation to one single man carries a much greater risk than slower implementation of policies. The legitimacy of the party now rests in the hands of Xi Jinping. He has left no room for failure or setbacks. The question of what comes after Xi Jinping or if something happens to him, is left unanswered. Xi has become all-powerful, yet the system that surrounds him, has been weakened in the past several years. All of this means that challenging Xi, is a challenge to the party. It also means that any failure of Xi will likewise be the party’s. This system cannot guarantee there will be no crisis. With these manoeuvres, Xi Jinping has gambled all stakes on himself to get the job done. But just like with gambling, the chance to lose it all always remains.

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