Will absolute power corrupt Xi Jinping?

China's President Xi Jinping seems aware of the need to meet growing expectations at home. Photo: Getty Images.

Xi Jinping’s reappointment as Chinese president with no term limits has raised a number of questions. What’s driven the move, should we be afraid, and what are the obstacles in the way of the newly-anointed “People’s Leader”? Sam Sachdeva reports.

Xi Jinping’s reappointment as Chinese President last week gave China hawks, already wary of his growing power, further cause for alarm.

With amendments to China’s constitution removing term limits for the role of President, the stage is now set for Xi to rule unimpeded for as long as he desires.

In reality, Xi’s consolidation of power gained momentum last October at the 19th congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

No successor was named, “Xi Jinping thought” was written into the party’s constitution, and Xi himself was subsequently anointed as lingxiu (people’s leader) – a term largely unused since Mao Zedong’s rule.

But what should we make of the changes, and what does it means for China?

Victoria University’s NZ Contemporary China Research Centre (NZCRCC) attempted to provide answers at an event on China’s “new era” this week.

Separating the power from the person

Restraints on power are relatively new to China.

Fudan University professor Wang Zhengxu said there were no clear rules of succession in China between the 1940s and 1970s, with Mao Zedong rising out of revolution as a leader – similar to Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin and Fidel Castro.

“The power of this type of leader is very personal, the power is indivisible from the person.”

That led to what Wang called the incumbent-successor dilemma, as the leaders tried to determined how and whether to anoint a replacement.

“It’s a zero-sum game between me and my intended successor - I want him to be strong but I also don’t want him to be too strong.”

Under Deng Xiaoping, formal rules were built to formalise power within an office, not a person, with clear term limits and a role for party institutions.

So what drove Xi to change the constitution?

“A glance at Chinese history shows how often emperors have brought their subjects to grief.”

As NZCCRC senior fellow Peter Harris pointed out, it could prove a highly risky move, with the two-term limit seen by many as preventing a repeat of Mao’s later years.

“A glance at Chinese history shows how often emperors have brought their subjects to grief.”

Harris said Xi could have behaved like Russian President Vladimir Putin if he’d chosen, stepping away from the presidency into a different role for some time before returning to the top job.

One possibility was that China’s environment was “nowhere near as rosy” as Xi had made out, with the country’s external relations particularly precarious on issues such as North Korea, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

US President Donald Trump and his administration’s “increasing unpredictable liability” could also be an issue, Harris said, referring to what is known as the Thucydides trap when talking about relations between a traditional superpower and a rising power.

“It was the rise of Athens and the fear this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

“It’s almost never the case that foreign activists and foreign governments get China to do anything it didn’t already want to do for its own domestic reasons."

Stephen Noakes, a senior lecturer of Chinese politics at Auckland University, said Xi’s comments of “a new era” were in part a signal that China was now in a position to largely meet its own development needs.

Noakes said the international community had to realise it could not exert much influence on China’s policy making, with one of Xi’s priorities protecting the “Chineseness” of institutions from foreign values.

“It’s almost never the case that foreign activists and foreign governments get China to do anything it didn’t already want to do for its own domestic reasons…

“It’s time to recognise, as uncomfortable as it might be, that China’s interests are domestically determined: it’s preoccupied with survival, but now that threat to survival comes from within, not without.”

'The expectations trap'

Any desire from Xi to become leader for life would not be without obstacles, as Noakes outlined when talking about the “expectations trap” facing him.

Xi’s party congress speech itself acknowledged the Chinese people’s growing desire for a cleaner environment, improved access to the justice system and better healthcare – issues he would now have to address meaningfully.

“The stakes are getting higher: mere survival is no longer enough… if you set a standard, you have to meet it.”

So should we fear the installation of Xi as China’s leader for life?

Wang argued not, suggesting the constitutional change could in part be an attempt to address flaws of the previous model, where the departing leader managed the transition process and the successor spent his first five-year term trying to consolidate his position.

“People worry Xi, by extending his rule, will turn China into a Putin type of personalistic system, I argue not…

“He has to rely on the party’s hierarchy and state hierarchy, and be constrained by different party and state institutions.”

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely…it would be an irony if in pursuing his course of action, President Xi comes to embody the very quality he is trying to eradicate.”

Wang acknowledged the international community would be wary of a long-ruling Chinese leader, and said Xi himself would need to carefully manage his country’s image and foreign affairs.

Harris was less optimistic, suggesting one reason for the abolition of term limits was Xi’s “deluded nobility of purpose and more than a hint” that he was the only person who could guide China’s future and stamp out corruption.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely…it would be an irony if in pursuing his course of action, President Xi comes to embody the very quality he is trying to eradicate.”

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