Written by Courtney Donovan Smith.
With the announcement of the proposed changes to the Chinese constitution, the world has been rightfully alarmed by the section eliminating term limits on the president, which effectively opens up the possibility of Xi Jinping becoming a leader for life.
He has also proposed enshrining “Xi Jinping Thought” in the constitution, raising his stature equal to that of Mao Zedong, the last truly absolute ruler of China. Xi has been consolidating power for some time across the board using a wide range of tactics, but these constitutional changes appear to signal that Xi’s endgame is coming nearer: ultimate power.
As noted in an article posted on the News Lens International stated:
“The timing of the Sunday missive is telling as well. Coming at the beginning of a second term, it both cements for the moment Xi’s overwhelming authority over the party and the government, and also sends a warning to his legion of enemies at the top of the party who have been hit by the anti-corruption campaign: he is not going anywhere.”
The constitutional changes — which will almost certainly be rubber-stamped — go on to further state in the section listed as “united front” in an article posted in official state media:
“Under the leadership of the [Communist Party of China] a broad patriotic united front which is composed of the democratic parties and people’s organizations, and which embraces all socialist working people, all builders of socialism, all patriots who support socialism, and all patriots who stand for the reunification of the motherland and devote themselves to national rejuvenation.This united front will continue to be consolidated and developed.” (emphasis added by the author)
Though unsure what this could mean in practice, the section on “Supervisory commissions” appears to be creating an entirely new state apparatus, one that could potentially be created to loyally serve Xi alone, bypassing all other cliques and power blocks.
Xi has repeatedly stressed his “Chinese Dream” aimed to “rejuvenate” and “reunify” the “motherland.” The Chinese Communist Party has over the years dedicated itself to a nationalistic devotion to erasing what it calls the “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign imperialists. A big part of that goal is to restore the national borders claimed by the Manchurian Qing Dynasty empire, which China now claims as its own. Hong Kong and Macau have been annexed and border issues with Russia resolved, but contested territorial conflicts remain in the South China Sea, East China Sea and along the border with India, which recently saw armed clashes.
Some speculate that China may be going even further by using the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to revive the the historical Imperial Chinese tributary state system in order to make neighboring states more subservient to Beijing.
While all of those could produce armed conflicts, the Chinese Communists have most alarmingly tied their legitimacy to the long-term goal of subjugating Taiwan. Though mostly ethnically Chinese and having been largely under the rule of the Manchurian Qing empire until 1895, the Taiwanese have no interest in being ruled from Beijing.
Since 1895 — already by then culturally distinct from the land of their ancestors — the Taiwanese have been ruled separately from China for over a hundred years, first by the Japanese and later by the government-in-exile of the defeated Republic of China who occupied the island after World War II after losing the civil war to the communists.
Recent re-opening of contact with China has not endeared the Taiwanese to China — indeed it has highlighted how strongly they have diverged culturally, economically and politically. The fiercely free and democratic Taiwanese have been further alienated by Communist China’s heavy-handed tactics and bullying threats of annexation by force. China fired missiles off the coast of Taiwan while the nation was holding its first free and fair presidential election in 1995 and 1996 to intimidate Taiwanese voters. This nation of 23 million people is firmly opposed to annexation by China.
Decades of Chinese Communist Party propaganda has convinced the Chinese people that until Taiwan has been “liberated,” the Chinese nation can’t truly be a great, unified nation again. Until recently Chinese leaders have, however, been content to leave that as a problem for the future. The reality is that an invasion of Taiwan would be extremely difficult militarily, hugely economically disruptive, requiring huge costs in blood and treasure and could draw China into a war with the United States and possibly even Japan.
Recent leaders also had to contend with various power blocks and cliques internally within the party, many of whom would stand to lose enormously in a war with Taiwan and would have moved to block or thwart it. They made the rational choice that it wasn’t worth it.
Most analysts (including myself) have thought the only way China would risk an invasion of Taiwan in the short to medium term would be if the China faced enough of an internal crisis that the power of the Chinese Communist Party was threatened, who would then use an invasion as a distraction and nationalist rallying cry.
As Xi Jinping’s power becomes more absolute, the situation is becoming significantly more dangerous. It is now clear he intends to seize total power and plans to crush any clique or power block that tries to get in his way. He has undergone a massive reorganization of the People’s Liberation Army. In his mind, he and he alone should wield ultimate power. Unfettered by term limits, he can’t kick the can down the road as easily as his predecessors. He will have to show action on his promised “Chinese Dream” to maintain power.
It may be that continued economic growth, standing tough in border disputes with India, militarizing the South China Sea and saber rattling with Japan will be enough to satisfy both himself and the people of China.
But will it be enough? Xi clearly thinks of himself in grand terms and increasingly portrays himself as such to the Chinese people. Many dictators around the world have seized power, clamped down on dissent and removed term limits — but how many have had their own personal “Thought” added to a national constitution?
Xi clearly intends to not just be a powerful leader, but one who goes down in history. The Chinese people have grown accustomed to strong economic growth, but that alone won’t qualify Xi as a historic leader.
This is where the terrifying part lies. Xi may consider actions purely for glory that his more institutional predecessors wouldn’t or couldn’t have.
This should make China’s neighbors very nervous. An absolute ruler of a massively powerful nation with ambitions to enter history is potentially very dangerous and unpredictable. China wants the Senkaku Islands from Japan, several border areas from India and to consolidate power over the South China Sea. But the obvious big prize to achieve glorious “reunification” of China and finally end the “century of humiliation” would be to take Taiwan.
That would be hugely risky and destructive course to take, potentially igniting a massive war involving many countries. But we can no longer assume that only a Chinese Communist Party facing an existential internal crisis is the only likely scenario whereby China would consider an attack.
Xi might just consider it for himself.
Courtney Donovan Smith is a contributing writer for The News Lens. This article was first published on The News Lens and has been republished under a republishing agreement. Image credit: CC by Obama State Department.