On March 11, China’s National People’s Congress made official what had been rumored for more than two weeks, voting to abolish the two-term limit on the presidency. Current president Xi Jinping is now able to serve in that post indefinitely. That decision is merely the latest in a series of ominous developments that have occurred since Xi took office in 2013.
Ending term limits significantly alters China’s political system. Deng Xiaoping, the architect of the country’s radical economic reforms beginning in the late 1970s, also implemented that crucial political reform. He and his followers did so to guard against a repeat of the horrid abuses committed during the long, tyrannical rule of Mao Zedong. And the restriction did achieve a limited success. China hardly became a democratic state, but within the context of a one-party system, Deng’s successors served more like chief executive officers, with other members of the party elite acting as a board of directors that could, and did, serve as a check on the president’s power. Removing the limit on presidential terms means that an incumbent now has abundant time to accumulate more and more personal power. The threat of strongman rule, with all its potential abuses, has returned.
As I point out in a recent article in Aspenia Online, Xi was exhibiting troubling behavior even before pushing through the legislation ending term limits. Under the guise of combatting corruption (admittedly a very real problem in China), he systematically purged officials who showed signs of independent views. There has been a troubling hardline ideological aspect to his rule as well. Xi initiated a campaign to revitalize the Party, aiming at achieving a renewed commitment to Maoist principles. Even pro-market academics felt the chill of the new political environment, with crackdowns directed against several prominent reformers, including economist Mao Yushi, the 2012 recipient of the Cato Institute’s Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty.
Internet censorship has steadily intensified in the past three years. Such intolerance of dissent culminated during the weeks leading up to the National People’s Congress vote on term limits. Authorities quickly silenced domestic critics of the planned constitutional revision—and there were a surprising number of them in the blogosphere and beyond.
The consolidation of Xi’s personal power, especially if it continues to exhibit neo-Maoist characteristics, not only has ominous domestic implications, it has worrisome implications for China’s external behavior. Indeed, the hardening of Beijing’s stance on several international issues has tracked closely with Xi’s inexorable moves toward strongman rule.
China has accelerated its land-reclamation efforts on several partially submerged reefs in the South China Sea. Some of the projects have become so extensive that Beijing has installed military installations on the expanded surfaces, and in a few cases, built military airstrips. The Xi government also has engaged in complete defiance of a 2016 international tribunal ruling rejecting most of China’s expansive territorial claims in that body of water. Finally, Beijing’s warnings to the United States about U.S. “freedom of navigation patrols” in the South China Sea have become increasingly strident.
China’s growing assertiveness toward Japan regarding disputed islands in the East China Sea (called the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China) is evident as well. In July 2017, Beijing escalated bilateral tensions dramatically when it sent six nuclear-capable bombers over the islands, and responded to Tokyo’s protests by telling Japanese leaders to “get used to” more flights of that nature. A few months earlier, Beijing warned the new Trump administration not to back Japan in the territorial dispute, despite established U.S. policy to support the claim of its longstanding ally.
It is the Taiwan issue, though, where Xi’s government has shown the most worrisome signs of uncompromising behavior. Over the past two years, the PRC has intensified its efforts to lure the small number of nations that still maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei to switch ties to Beijing. Warnings that China will use force if necessary to prevent any “separatist” initiatives by Taiwan have become more insistent, if not downright threatening. The sharp increase in the number and scope of provocative Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and other nearby waters suggests that Xi’s government is not bluffing.
Any one of the above domestic or foreign policy developments would be cause for concern. Taken together, they suggest that China might be reverting to a virulently authoritarian country determined to pursue an abrasive, perhaps even an aggressively revisionist, foreign policy. Granted, China potentially would have much to lose economically by engaging in such behavior, and that factor might be enough to deter Xi from embarking on such a course.
But the mounting evidence that Xi Jinping intends to be an unconstrained strongman instead of merely being the head of a collective leadership should cause U.S. officials to conduct a comprehensive policy reassessment. Since the onset of China’s market-oriented economic reforms in the late 1970s, U.S policy has been based on two assumptions. One was economic reforms would lead to a more open, tolerant political system, perhaps ultimately culminating in China evolving into a full-fledged democracy. The other belief was that a less autocratic China, fully integrated into the global economy, would become, in the words of former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, a “responsible stakeholder” in the international diplomatic and economic systems. Both of those assumptions now are very much in doubt.