In Chinese tradition, dynastic bloodline has never been the criterion to determine the line of succession. It is the capable ministers and victorious generals who were bestowed the ‘mandate of heaven’ (tianming) to rule China. Hundreds of rulers earned the legendary title of Huang di – the ‘first Yellow Emperor’ who founded China on the rich flood plains of the Yellow River (Huang He).Few wielded more power than Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the founding emperors of China’s Communist Dynasty. Now, Xi Jinping has made history with the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s Parliament – a rubber stamp body –voting to abolish the 10-year presidential term limit, thus enabling him to lead China for several years more.
Mao, as the First Generation leader, ruled China for nearly three decades till his death in 1976. Deng succeeded Mao, albeit after a brief power struggle, and remained at the helm for almost two decades. To avoid a repeat of the aftermath of the ‘Cultural Revolution’, Deng incorporated a provision in the Party constitution in 1982 to limit the tenure of the President. Both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, as the Third and Fourth Generation Leaders respectively, served two- five years terms each, adopting a collective leadership style.
Xi, the son of Xi Zhongxun – a revolutionary and Mao’s compatriot – joined the Party in 1974 at the age of 21. He burst on the political scene as a graft fighting Governor of Fujian in 1999. Xi was a consensus candidate to take on the mantle of the Fifth Generation leadership in 2012. Given the smooth transition of power for the third consecutive time, coupled with his low profile (then he was better known as the husband of popular folk singer Peng Liyuan), speculation was rife that Xi will abide by the constitutional rule that his immediate predecessors had abided by. However, he played his hand differently to emerge as the most powerful leader after Mao and promising to usher China into the ‘New Era’.
Xi bends the curve to forge ‘Generation Rule’
While commencing his first term in 2013, Xi had stated that “to forge iron, you ought to be strong”. He then set about systematically consolidating his position by strengthening his hold on the twin levers of power: the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). He wasted no time in assuming the triple titles of: General Secretary of the CPC, the most powerful appointment; Chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the highest military body; and, the Presidency, the least important of the three. Incidentally, Jiang Zemin had held on to the Chairmanship of the CMC for almost two years after handing over the reins to Hu Jintao, thus creating dual power centres.
Xi unleashed an unbridled campaign to clean up the system as corruption had got deeply engrained in the Party culture. Some of the stalwarts who were either punished or removed for corruption or other violations included Zhou Yongkang, member of the apex Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), and Bo Xilai, member Politburo and Party Secretary of Chongqing. Besides, more than 40 PLA Generals were netted in the anti-graft operations. These included Generals Guo Boxing and Caihu, Vice Chairmen in the CMC and recently General Fang Fenghui, former Chief of General Staff and member of the CMC. The anti-corruption campaign has also proved handy for Xi to purge potential political rivals.
Concurrently, Xi initiated radical military reforms with a dual aim; to prepare the defence forces for their future role and reinforce the Party’s firm control over PLA. The reforms process started in 2013 during the Third Plenum of the Party Congress with the establishment of the National Security Commission with Xi as its Chairman. In the reorganized CMC, the role of the President as the ‘Commander in Chief’ enables Xi to exercise direct operational control over the military through the ‘Joint Operational Center’. By ordering a series of reshuffles in the PLA hierarchy, Xi ensured that his loyalists occupied key positions. To reaffirm the role of the military, Xi visited Gutian, a town in Fujian Province, on 30 October 2014 and reiterated what Mao had legislated at the same venue in December 1929; “PLA remains Party’s Army and must maintain absolute loyalty to political masters”.
At the time of the 19th Party Congress held in October 2017, Xi was holding over a dozen titles, and was referred to, in a lighter vein, as ‘Chairman of all’. During the Party Congress, Xi further cemented his authority by enshrining his “Thought for New Era Socialism with Chinese Special Characteristics” in the Constitution. His eponymous political ideology proposes an alternate to liberal democracy and serves as a philosophy around which the CPC can coalesce. In a clear departure from the well-established tradition followed since the last three decades, no one was chosen as the ‘Sixth Generation’ leader, a successor to be groomed to take over from Xi after he completes his second five year term in 2023. This set a new precedence, giving rise to speculation that Xi was planning for a third term.
During the 19th Party Congress, Xi unveiled his ‘China Dream’ (fuxing),whichenvisions a powerful and prosperous China entering a ‘New Era”. To this end, he outlined the twin centenary objectives: China to become a fully modern economy and achieve social modernization by 2035; and acquire the status of ‘great modern socialist country’ by the middle of this Century. He propounded the policy ‘striving for achievement’ (fanfa youwei), advocating a greater Chinese leadership role in global affairs to shape the new world order. This marked an abandonment of Deng’s strategy of maintaining a low profile, never taking a leadership role and biding for time till China completes its peaceful rise.
Post the Party Congress, Xi surreptitiously engineered the process to do away with the two-term Presidential limit, although the appointment is of ceremonial nature to facilitate the discharge of political functions. In January 2018, some 200 senior officials of the Communist Party Central Committee gathered behind closed doors to abolish the Presidential term limit so that Xi could hold on to power indefinitely. The decision was kept under wraps and abruptly announced just before the commencement of the NPC annual session. As expected, the controversial constitutional amendment to abolish the limit set on the presidential term was passed with an overwhelming majority by the NPC on 11 March 2018 at the Great Hall of People, thus enabling Xi to continue to retain power for life.
China Set for a Long March to Enter ‘New Era’
When China started to integrate into the ‘global economic order’, the West began to believe that the PRC would bind itself to the rule based system and evolve into a market economy. It was further assumed that, as Chinese people grew wealthier, they will yearn for democratic freedom thus paving the way for political reforms. Xi was expected to initiate far reaching economic and political reforms. However, this turned out to be an illusion.
There are a few reasons that explain the CCP’s decision to empower Xi indefinitely. Firstly, the process of China’s emergence as a global power remains a work in progress and is expected to continue for the next few decades. Secondly, the Chinese economy is in a state of transition from low technology manufacturing to advanced digitally enabled products. Thirdly, Xi’s pet project, the ‘Belt-Road Initiative’ which envisages an investment of US $ 1 trillion abroad, and is perceived to be vital for sustaining China’s pace of economic growth and creating a strategic web to expand the Dragon’s influence, requires leadership continuity. Fourthly, Xi’s on-going anti-corruption drive demands a strong person at the helm.
China’s political system is authoritarian and leaves no space for dissent. Hence, despite Xi’s political coup and underlying fears of oppressive measures, large scale protests are unlikely. Moreover, the public at large perceives Mao to have made China great, Deng rich, and Xi to be building a strong nation. For the time being, the major concerns of the Chinese people are economic, i.e., jobs, prosperity and quality of life; politics is certainly not a key issue.
According to retired Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces, Xi’s elevation as a lifelong Emperor will lend China a short term advantage by way of consistency of policies and clear strategic direction vis-a vis the democracies where leaders and policies change frequently. However, in the long run, dictatorial regimes are prone to political instability, especially during transitions of power; China itself being a case in point. Another fact could be the rise of China’s middle class over a period of time which would consist of people with varied experiences and independent mindseta who could possibly seek greater political freedom.
Global polity is often surprised by the Communist leadership, primarily due to a lack of understanding of Chinese history, culture and a system shrouded in secrecy. All Chinese regimes since the demise of the Qing Monarchy have consolidated national sovereignty and pursued power through all available means. Most commentators who got Xi wrong claim that not much was known about him before he came to power. The lateLee Kuan Yew, when expressing his opinion about Xi Jinping, had stated that he has the soul of iron and does not let past suffering weigh upon him. He had compared Xi with the likes of Nelson Mandela. According to Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, Xi is a man of extraordinary intellect, is self-confident and has a well-defined world view.
Xi began his second term by exhorting the two million strong PLA to be combat ready by focussing on how to win wars. In his recent speech at the 19th Party Congress, Xi stated that while he would strive to resolve disputes through dialogue he will not compromise on sovereignty. During his interaction with the delegates of the current NPC, he warned officials to shed ‘pillow talk’ and refrain from indulging in corruption. If the above statements are any indication, the world can expect Xi to be internally oppressive and externally assertive in pursuit of his ‘China Dream’, which could intensify the ensuing ‘great power rivalry’
China under a powerful autocratic leader does not augur well for India. The I962 War and the stand-offs in 1967 and 1987 occurred during the Mao and Deng eras. And the recent face-offs at Depsang, Demchok and Doklam have taken place during Xi’s rule. India will have to be well prepared to counter Chinese intimidation and aggressive behaviour. This will require decoding Xi’s strategic design and exploit windows of opportunities to enhance cooperation and reduce confrontation. The formulation of a holistic China policy driven by India’s long term core interests is no more an option, but an imperative.
Xi rides the Dragon which is externally formidable but internally fragile. He is aware of the consequences of his policies going awry. There is scepticism about China’s ability to maintain its pace of economic growth, given the signs of slow down. Xi has offered the China model based on ‘neo authoritarianism’, where political stability and economic development trump democracy and individual rights, as an alternate to the Western liberal democratic capitalist model. China’s long march to enter the ‘New Era’ will come at a price as it retracts into Mao era centralisation.,
According to the Chinese 11th Century Classic ‘The General Mirror for the Aid of Government’ (Cu Chi Tang Qian), “Anyone who is able to prevent violence and remove harm from the people so that men’s lives are protected, who can reward good and punish evil and thus avoid disaster – such a man be called an emperor.” Xi is known to have deep insights in Chinese history. He has taken a tough call fraught with tremendous risk but with the conviction that he has it in him to be in the league of Mao and Deng, although, as a princeling, he may not belong to the same tribe.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.