Foreign Policy Blogs

Xi Jinping: China’s Emperor for life?

The annual full session of the National People’s Congress, which began on 5 March, sees President Xi Jinping on the way to becoming China’s “Emperor” for life.

Following the party’s Central Committee proposal of eliminating the limits for the country’s president from the constitution – currently set at a maximum of two consecutive terms – Xi is likely to remain China’s leader and rule well beyond 2023, when his five-year mandate would previously ahve come to an end.

A one-man show

In last year’s party congress, it became clear that a new era was born under Xi Jinping and he has no intention of stepping down in the future. His name and political thought theory, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, were added to the party constitution.

“Xi Jinping has finally achieved his ultimate goal when he first embarked on Chinese politics – that is to be the Mao Zedong of the 21st century.”

– Willy Lam, political analyst at the Chinese University in Hong Kong

Xi’s presidency has been marked by an increasingly powerful cult of personality, along with a dangerous lack of political opposition and a dismal human rights record. In fact, other than being President of the People’s Republic of China, he also serves as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and as Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

As Xi holds the top offices of the party, the state, and the military, and with the previous party congress ending without appointing a clear eventual successor, it is not difficult to see why some describe him as “China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao”.

Since Xi became president of China in 2012, his strongman image has played a key role in determining China’s domestic and foreign policies. At the domestic level, his ruthless anti-corruption campaign has become a stronghold of his consolidation of power. Used to intimidate or eliminate cadres and party members who disagree with him or represent a threat to his political ambitions, Xi Jinping’s campaign has been leading him to finally achieve his sought after one-man show.

Xi’s assertiveness is also evident at the foreign policy level. From showing off China’s hard power in the South China Sea, to its increasingly strong soft power projections in the form of billions of dollars invested in Asia and Africa, Xi Jinping’s China is more powerful and influential than before.

Emperor for life

The 64-year-old leader could now be only one step away from tightening his grip on China and stay in office indefinitely. News regarding the presidency term limits broke in a two-sentence article on 25 March, as reported by Xinhua, China’s official newswire:

“The Communist Party of China Central Committee proposed to remove the expression that the President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China ‘shall serve no more than two consecutive terms’ from the country’s Constitution”.

If this reform proposal encounters zero opposition at the National People’s Congress, it is fair to accept that China will continue to move forward according to Xi’s thoughts, economic reforms and political strategy. Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the party-run tabloid, Global Times, tweeted that the “removal of the two-term limit of the president of PRC doesn’t mean China will restore life-long tenure for state leader”. However, this unexpected announcement is likely only the beginning of an even more prominent crackdown that will affect China’s standing in the international community.

The state propaganda machine, which was immediately put in motion after the announcement to respond to the social media backlash, has not been able to mitigate the concerns of the economic and social risks linked to this reform. Given Xi’s already heavy-handed approach on China’s economy and his government’s clampdowns on freedoms – such as online censorship and human rights abuses – his “emperor for life” status doesn’t come without risks.

Heading towards a “One China, One System”?

The next challenge for Beijing will be the aftermath of the Hong Kong elections from March 11th. In the crossfire of criticism for the disqualification of activist Agnes Chow – representative of the pro-democracy party Demosisto, Xi Jinping’s government is accused of infringing the “One China, Two Systems” model that allows Hong Kong to hold a certain degree of political autonomy.

Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, Patrick Nip, agreed to review Hong Kong’s electoral laws in the wake of a recent court ruling that granted officials’ power to ban candidates because of their political views. Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in Hong Kong is undeniable.

During the Party Congress held in October 2017, Xi Jinping reaffirmed Beijing would not allow anyone to “separate any part of the Chinese territory from China”. Fast forward to today, his statement can be interpreted as a constitutional reform by extending Xi’s mandate and, therefore imply a much-feared transformation towards a “One China, One System” model.