By William Gupton
Late last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping was given a decision made by his own party that solidifies his role as the most powerful man in the world. The Communist Party in China has moved to remove language in their constitution limiting presidents to two five-year terms. President Xi, with only one year left in his first term, is moving to become the world’s newest autocrat.
This news was not surprising to me, I have been watching China’s political development for the past year. There have been three major power plays that have stood out to me among this, each of which is all too reminiscent of a past dominated by imperial rule.
First, China has been very quietly asserting imperial influence in the developing world, participating in a shadow imperialism that has been giving China a major role in the future of these nations. The centerpiece of this shadow imperialism is the so called Belt and Road initiative, a Chinese-led infrastructure plan in Africa and western Asia in the total sum of $60 billion dollars. To many, this plan sounds like an instance of Chinese leadership and support for the world, but as Pakistan discovered, this is not an equal partnership. Shortly after the plan was laid out, three major projects in Pakistan were halted by China without the say of Pakistani leaders, pending “new guidelines” according to a local paper.
Chinese’s absolute decision making in this project has stoked fears amongst many about the power it gives China in nations where developments are taking place. According to Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, because of the way these projects are unilaterally controlled by China, there is a significant fear that nations which fall out of political favor with Xi Jinping could suffer severe economic punishments. As a result, China’s seeming benevolent economic investment becomes a powerful political weapon for asserting international power.
Second, the Chinese Communist Party, which is dominated by loyalists of Xi, recently moved to enshine “Xi Jinping thought” in the party constitution. When this is officially instituted, it will mean that President Xi’s political philosophy will be permanently contained within the communist party. This is a move that puts him on a similar level to Communist legend Mao Zedong, demonstrating a desire in Xi to place himself in an authoritarian position of central power.
This, combined with a massive propaganda machine that is working to make Xi nearly divine amongst his people, is leading to a cult of personality growing around the Chinese president. As China is bullying buddhists in Tibet, demolishing mega churches with dynamite and asserting military power in the South China sea, Xi is constantly portrayed as a charismatic fatherly figure instead of a militaristic authoritarian ruler. Because of the cult of Xi, the Chinese president can get away with dangerous policies and international bullying while still being painted as a benevolent lover of peace amongst the Chinese people.
The third action in this set is this recent news that Xi is pushing to remove constitutional term limits on his reign as president. President Xi is not even at the end of his first term, and yet he is already moving to ensure that he will have more than one left after this. Rather than wait until the end of his second term to cling to power (see further Vladimir Putin’s extension of his rule), Xi is capitalizing on his political momentum and growing influence to prevent himself from facing domestic limits. If these term limits are completely removed, Xi will no longer have to worry about losing power domestically and can instead focus on solidifying his international dominance. Make no mistake, Xi Jinping intends on making himself the most powerful man on the planet.
All of these actions remind me too much of imperial rule in Europe anytime between the fifteen to nineteenth centuries. For comparison, the British Empire was spearheaded by a central authoritarian figure acting with extreme amounts of power with the minor limits of some democratic governance in parliament, making economic investment in foreign nations for personal benefit and asserting military influence in foreign nations. All of this was accomplished while the monarch maintained an outsized presence amongst their own people. President Xi is doing nearly the exact same thing, finding a way of reinstating authoritarian power in the modern age, becoming the virtual monarch of his nation.
Xi joins the list of modern leaders pushing the limits of democratic governance to assert individual power. The list now includes: Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Donald Trump in the United States and Xi Jinping in China, and out of these figures it’s Xi on top. We are entering a new age where democratic rule is being pushed and challenged, possibly nearing a breaking point, and these figures are only the beginning of these tests. Unless proponents of democratic governments stand up to these leaders, they will continue to solidify power and encourage others to make the same grabs of unrestricted power.
Long live the Xi.