Last Sunday on March 11, 2018, China’s National People’s Congress removed a clause from the national constitution that limited the president and vice president to two consecutive terms. The announcement confirms widespread suspicion that President Xi Jinping, who had Xi Jinping thought enshrined in the party charter last October, planned to change China’s power transfer “regulation”.
The provision that the CCP seeks to eliminate was initially added to the 1982 constitution in an effort to learn from the mistakes of Chairman Mao, who developed the cult of personality that was the animating force behind the disastrous Cultural Revolution. Around the world, journalists, scholars, and financial managers are concerned by China’s disregard for its recent past, but not because they think China is condemned to repeat the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
The nature of the concern in each country depends on how much Xi’s economic and territorial ambitions directly collide with that country’s interests. Important players in the Indo-Pacific region, such as Japan, India, Malaysia, and Vietnam, tend to view the potential repercussions of Xi’s plan in the much nearer term than their more distant counterparts in the West.
In the West, experts sometimes even go as far as to suggest that lifting Xi’s restraints provides a modicum of certainty in an otherwise uncertain world. Others are more pessimistic, believing that political instability is likely to follow if Xi is allowed to govern indefinitely without a clear successor.
In contrast, countries in China’s backyard have shown their concern that this amendment will empower him to act more aggressively. Media reactions in those countries all state that increasing Xi’s capacity to realize his vision of a muscular China poses a set of immediate challenges that could escalate to outright confrontation.
Asian Reaction Reflects Rising Tensions
One of the biggest challenges in Asia is that the other two largest economic powers, Japan and India, have extremely tense relations with China. The Japanese and Indian reactions to the news about Xi’s power grab reflected the strains in their relationships.
The headline of an article that appeared in the Indian newspaper, The Economic Times, implied that China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean are like an act of war, and that Xi’s move necessitates a response from India “to move on many fronts”. This attitude reflects ongoing Indian anxiety that Chinese ports in the Indian Ocean may also be serving Chinese military ambitions. Writers throughout India media have previously claimed that construction of the Gwadar port in Pakistan, a part of the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor, will be “the last cog in a string of pearls encircling India.”
Easing Xi’s authority over the CCP is the worst possible outcome because Xi is the most capable leader to realize the strategic and military potential of the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the author argued. The author further states that this prospect must not come to fruition because it will make Pakistan “a vassal state of China”, and will allow China to capitalize on long-standing divisions between the two countries to the detriment of Indian security.
While the media reaction was more balanced than in India, Japan’s assessment of Xi’s power move is that it would set him on a “collision course” with Prime Minister Abe. In the The Japan Times, one columnist implies that the constitutional amendment threatens the promise of the “fresh start” in the Sino-Japanese relations Xi promised Abe last November. With his new mandate to rule indefinitely, Xi might try to push the envelope on flashpoint issues in the East and South China Seas.
In the South China Sea, Japan shares the U.S. concern that Xi’s construction of military outposts on manmade islands threatens freedom of navigation. In the East China Sea, Japan and the PRC have an ongoing dispute over the Senkaku islands, known in China as the Diaoyu islands. Beyond simple nationalism, the issue is extra sensitive after oil was discovered under the seabed near the islands.
However, the article noted that not everyone is certain that Xi is willing to risk the fallout a Sino-Japanese confrontation might bring to this important relationship. Rather than simply following Deng’s famous dictum to “hide your strength and bide your time”, the fresh start Xi promised may indicate a recognition that detente could enable Japan and China to work together on common issues, such as the threat posed by a nuclearized North Korea.
One upshot of the recent set of moves that have concentrated Xi’s authority is that he is no longer encumbered by nationalistic peers or subordinates who would otherwise vehemently resist a neutral stance toward Japan. These opposing goals within Xi’s foreign policy vision— between aggressive nationalism and the desire to work together with its Asian partners—bely the common assumption that the removal of Xi’s term limits will make the region more predictable in the short-term.
Western leaders should heed to this lesson that continuity in the CCP leadership does not mean that China can be predictably relied upon to promote Asian regional security. Judging by their silence, they do not appear to understand that China’s foreign policy will continue to be uncertain even if Xi is allowed to serve as long as he wishes. Uncertainty is a given so long as China operates its foreign policy under two competing directives.
Are Western Leaders Worried about the Bad Emperor Problem?
Given the CCP’s path to its historic imperial model, it seems logical to support a capable emperor who seeks to extend his rule and prevent the rise of inept challengers. As Kerry Brown, a professor at King’s College in London, asked in his unique interpretation of the news: Should Western leaders prefer an empowered Xi unencumbered by lame duck status or weak Beijing leadership dealing with the threat of a nuclearized North Korea? Western leaders may be privately displeased by China’ retreat from the rule of law, but also know this pales in comparison to the disasters a bad emperor could unleash, Brown implied.
On a basic level, there is little reason to doubt these cautious instincts. Brown is correct in pointing to the collapse of the Soviet Union as an example of what happens when a country that allows no formal political opposition suddenly permits it. Radical political change in China would be equally catastrophic.
Yet a range of potential forecasts that includes the collapse of the Chinese Community Party is far too expansive. Since 1979, the CCP has proven remarkably stable and capable of administering essential public services. Nothing could be further from the breadlines of Gorbachev’s Soviet Union.
On the other hand, the choice between rule by a bad emperor and a strong emperor is too narrow. There is a third option, which we might call rule of law with Chinese characteristics. Only people who fall victim to magical thinking can reach the conclusion that China’s political system will develop full-fledged rule of law that meets Western ideals. However, even nascent political reforms promoted by Deng were successful in preventing a reversion to a historical model defined by centralized authority, and that should not be taken lightly.
Chinese people have to look no further than their dynastic history to understand the internal squabbles and instability centralized authority invites. For this reason, Western partners who are most financially and economically dependent on the long-term performance of the China model are also the most worried about the long-term implications of political consolidation.
For example, Australian media interpreted the proposed constitutional amendment as confirmation that Chinese “interparty democracy” is a farce. Before Xi, there was robust competition between the Deng, Jiang, and Hu factions. The tension between factions of individual leaders led to good outcomes that approximated democracy. In particular, there was a focus on technocracy and “scientific development”, the phrase that guided Hu Jintao’s tenure. Even though there are still symbolic concessions to these different factions as indicated by the composition of the current Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), effective political power is so concentrated in Xi’s hands that these tensions are no longer meaningful.
This new development in Chinese politics is significant because it is impossible to consolidate power without creating more potential challengers. James White, an Australian investment manager who researches the implications of Chinese policies on his firm, alleges that the only way President Xi will be able to placate these challengers is by conferring special privileges on them. Policies that favor certain powerful political constituencies will exacerbate inefficiency, inequality, and social instability. Each one of these outcomes would undermine CCP legitimacy.
Searching for a new basis of political legitimacy, President Xi might feel the need to double down on the high risk strategy of foreign adventurism. The most likely outcome of any outreach, such as reunifying Taiwan by force or expansion of Chinese spheres of influence, is to undermine China’s peaceful rise. But there is also a chance that these policies could revive Chinese imperial glory and detract from domestic problems.
This view is easy to criticize on speculative grounds. Even if each causal link connecting political consolidation to aggressive foreign policy is very likely, it only takes one assumption to not hold to break the chain.
Nonetheless, in identifying potential interactions between political consolidation and legitimacy, Western reactions have highlighted the relevant issue. The increasingly bold efforts at political consolidation may indicate that the CCP is insecure in matters regarding its legitimacy. That insecurity set the Party on a course that began in 2012 and crystallized with this year’s constitutional amendment. When an emerging superpower is incapable of adapting its political structure to socioeconomic changes within China due to insecurity, it is bound to spell out poorly for the rest of the world, particularly for China’s neighbors. After all, these countries not only rely on China economically and financially, but also on a common diplomatic understanding of various security issues—from how to deal with a nuclearized North Korea to settling maritime disputes.
For this reason, Western leaders who appear to be ambivalent about Xi’s power grab are misinterpreting the nature of the bad emperor problem. The problem is not solely a matter of preventing incompetent leaders from gaining power over the Chinese state, but an inflexible political system that increasingly relies on the performance of a single individual to navigate complex problems that require broader input.
The Perils of Rejecting Deng’s Vision
China observers are not engaging in a meaningless exercise when they express concern about the down the line repercussions of political consolidation under President Xi. Even Deng Xiaoping, who had little use for abstract concepts like electoral democracy, shared a practical concern for the “over-concentration” of political power within certain individuals. He demonstrated his foresight by proposing political reforms regarding succession and term limits, albeit not enough to institutionalize them to prevent a leader from undoing them in the name of the people and the party.
In a 1980 speech, Deng Xiaoping warned that “Over-concentration of power is liable to give rise to arbitrary rule by individuals at the expense of collective leadership.” He also clearly stated the stakes of his political reform effort, referring to the “heavy price” China paid during the Cultural Revolution when leaders turned a blind eye to Chairman Mao’s accumulation of power.
In their criticism of the move to abolish term limits, many Western scholars referred to Deng’s outlook on political reform. For example, Susan Shirk, the Director of the 21st Century China Center at UC San Diego, interprets the constitutional amendment as a rejection of Deng’s principle of collective leadership and a return to “Mao-styled personalistic dictatorial rule”.
The perils of Xi’s rejection of Deng’s vision is that the pressures to gradually make governance more accountable, responsive, and law-bound (i.e. “collective leadership”) are not going to disappear as China develops. On the contrary, these pressures will only become stronger as China grows richer. One researcher of democratic trends, Larry Diamond, emphasizes that the relation between standard of living and democracy is not a speculative theory but an empirical fact. The democratic tipping point varies across countries, but typically occurs when the GDP reaches $10,000-15,000 per capita after adjusting for purchasing power parity (PPP). Even conservative projections of China’s economic development estimate that China will reach this standard of living around 2025.
The interpretations for why this phenomenon is so widely observed in countries around the world (excluding petrol states in the Middle East) is more speculative. One theory suggests that authoritarian political systems might be suitable for a simple economy based on low-cost manufacturing, but becomes inviable in complex value-added economies with a multiplicity of stakeholders.
Given the robust relation between wealth and democracy, an obvious question emerges: Why is China currently pursuing political policies, such as the removal of term limits, that are moving in the opposite direction of electoral democracy? One Chinese scholar and prominent critic of the CCP, Minxin Pei, provides one insight to this question. He agrees with the premise that complex economies require accountable and responsive political systems. The Party’s self-preservation instincts will create a crisis of authoritarianism, where legitimacy based on consistent economic growth is fundamentally threatened. Rather than “generate a new opportunity for democratic transition” as Larry Diamond suggests, however, Pei noted in an interview reacting to the announcement to revise the constitution that China could simply rely on naked power by building up its surveillance state. Applying effective technocratic administration that has delivered astounding economic results to political repression means that China is “no garden-variety dictatorship…[because] it is both far more ruthless…and far more capable of protecting its power.”
Conclusion: Is China Repeating the Mistakes of the Past?
Generally, the views articulated in this summary fall into two traps. The first is to overstate Xi’s power, particularly as it relates to remaking the world in China’s image. The second is to overstate the fragility of this emerging power. The former camp seems to be driven by misguided pragmatism. That is to say, President Xi cementing his power brings predictability to the Indo-Pacific region. On the other hand, many pessimists prematurely proclaim that the constitutional amendment has condemned China to repeat the mistakes it supposedly left behind them after the death of Chairman Mao.
The move is a part of a larger effort to consolidate power that does in fact make China’s political future more uncertain in the long-term. China’s own history demonstrates the tenuous nature of top-down authoritarian political systems. As the political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, explains in detail in his two volume study on political development, a series of good emperors can deliver extraordinary outcomes under such a system, even better than their democratically accountable and judicially constrained counterparts. But without a political system backed by genuine rule of law, it only takes one bad emperor to jeopardize the progress made under more competent or enlightened predecessors. Drawing from these lessons of Chinese history, Fukuyama remarks that the way President Xi has rolled back the reforms promoted under a “good emperor”, Deng Xiaoping, suggests that the bad emperor phenomenon has reemerged.
Western leaders who implicitly prefer empowering Xi over the chaotic alternative miss the point of the bad emperor problem. The bad emperor problem is mentioned to highlight the lack of institutional constraints, not the individuals themselves.
One of the basic principles of politics is that leaders who over-consolidate power are free to make abrupt, radical changes unencumbered by the views of their subordinates. Since this principle extends to foreign policy, the world should expect that political changes within China will spill over into the regional and international realm. Abandoning a variant of the rule of law with Chinese characteristics initiated by Deng and continued by his immediate successors will have adverse effects.
Yet these adverse effects are unlikely to build up to the collapse of the Communist Party or anything resembling the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. China has made a complete transformation since the Cultural Revolution. This transformation goes beyond the massive improvement in living standard to the formalization of its court system and law enforcement. The institutionalization of legal norms does not currently apply to the Party itself, but they will nonetheless go a long way to prevent the lawless chaos that plagued China during the Cultural Revolution.
In interpreting China’s current path, we should avoid uncritical examinations of recent Chinese history. When he instituted term limits, Deng Xiaoping was motivated by a desire to prevent the rise of another powerful leader like Mao who would abuse his cult-like following by ushering destabilizing mass movements. But that does not necessarily mean that their removal from the state constitution marks a return to Mao-styled dictatorship. China observers who overemphasize the connection between Xi and Mao should remember this piece of wisdom from the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, “No [country] steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and it is not the same [country].” In other words, political consolidation under Xi is concerning, but not because the Party is condemning itself to repeat the mistakes of the Mao era.
(Featured Image Credit: Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China)
By VINCENT PALUMBO-SMITH
Vincent Palumbo-Smith is a Spring 2018 intern for The Carter Center’s China Program.