16 January 2019

Will Xi Jinping Be China’s President For Life?

Xu Zhangrun, a law professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, made waves among Chinese academics and China-watchers in July with a published essay denouncing President Xi Jinping’s hard-line policies. The essay has been cited in numerous Western media outlets as a “rare rebuke” of Xi. 

The incident and other rumors of internal party dissent led Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute, to wonder whether Xi has “passed his peak.” The pushback among elites, which McGregor characterizes so far as “whisperings,” have mainly been concerned with the Mao-like cult of personality surrounding Xi, who has amassed power unseen in China since Mao Zedong.

The president of China may be finding, as Tom Mitchell wrote in the Financial Times, that “with absolute power has come absolute responsibility.”

The recent whispers come close on the heels of President Xi Jinping’s cementing of power in Beijing. At the National People’s Congress, which concluded on March 20, China’s top brass abolished presidential term limits, a stunning reversal of two decades of incremental institutionalization aimed at stabilizing government turnover. Commentators uniformly denounced the move, with many characterizing it as a Xi “power grab.” Others warned that China may be returning to the Mao era of strongman rule. Fears of increased repression are well founded, but this does not mean that stronger Communist Party rule will fail in its main purpose, which is the realization of difficult but needed changes to China’s governance and economy. 

In October 2017, the Chinese Communist Party’s once-every-five-year congress named no apparent successor to President Xi Jinping, as has been customary for the past 15 years. The failure to prepare an orderly political transition created uncertainty among observers as to the future leadership of the party and government, against the backdrop of Xi tightening—and personalizing—his grip on power. With regard to Xi and his future intentions, however, it might be more useful to begin with what we already know based on his first five years as the president of China. To begin with, he moved forcefully and decisively to shore up the CCP as the all-powerful institution steering China’s state and society. Simultaneously, he moved to tighten the party’s grip over China’s rapidly transforming society. Another clear takeaway from Xi’s first five years is his ambitious vision for advancing China’s ability to project power and influence abroad. 

Despite slowing economic growth and a bruising trade war with the United States, Xi seems intent to push forward with his efforts to strengthen the party’s hegemony, particularly over China’s economy. At a speech in December marking the 40th anniversary of a watershed moment in what would become China’s program of economic liberalization, officially known as “reform and opening up,” he showed no inclination toward deepening China’s market-oriented reforms. Before the speech, some observers had wondered if Xi would signal a shift in Beijing’s handling of state-owned enterprises, in particular. But despite plenty of vague proclamations like “opening brings progress while closure leads to backwardness,” he did not propose any specific new measures in his nearly 90-minute speech. Instead, Xi struck a defiant tone. “It was precisely because we’ve adhered to the centralized and united leadership of the party that we were able to achieve this great historic transition,” Xi declared. “The party leads everything.” And for the foreseeable future, Xi will lead the party.

Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to have put any further meaningful economic reforms on the backburner. 

China’s President Xi Jinping is using tools from the past to shape the future, as a revitalized Chinese Communist Party is stoking renewed fears of repression and censorship. 

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