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China's Constitutional Conundrum

Last month, members of China’s National People’s Congress voted through a constitutional amendment that will allow Xi Jinping to remain president indefinitely. While the successful passage of this amendment was all but ensured, given Xi’s iron grip on the NCP, this power-grab clearly demonstrates that Xi has no intention of giving up the presidency.

(Source: Modern Diplomacy)

Decried as un-democratic by the West (although realistically when has China ever been democratic), this dark period in Chinese history is lightened up by one thing only: condom manufacturer Durex came under political fire from the Chinese government as a direct result after one of its advertisements was spread online with the phrase “doing it twice is not enough”, a quip on Xi’s continuation of his presidency - past presidents were limited to serving two five-year terms.

Political Implications

Now back to the politics. To an extent, Xi’s proposal has been a long time coming. In October 2017, ‘Xi Jingping Thought’, a socialist political theory, was incorporated into the CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party) constitution. Out of all of China’s political leaders since the Communist Party’s inception in 1949, only Mao was honoured in this way. In the same month Xi failed to identify a successor as his first term drew to a close. And now this. Xi is seeking to consolidate his power in China, and considering even the most basic geopolitical implication - i.e. that countries will not be able to hit a diplomatic reset button with China for what could be several decades - is frightening.

So what are the deeper consequences? In terms of the economy, Xi Jinping is not the market reformer that Deng Xiaoping was in the 70s. Under Xi’s presidency, inequality has skyrocketed - studies by Peking University shows that the poorest 25% of households hold just 1% of the country’s wealth; while coastal urban cities are growing at the expense of poor rural villages. Moreover, China is $28tn in debt (Business Insider) - and Xi has just completed his first term. None of this is a ringing endorsement for Xi’s economic policies.

(Source: CNN Money)

Politically, if (or when) Xi achieves his aim of a perpetual presidency, this will worsen a culture in which government officials have to cultivate loyalty to Xi in order to be successful - there’s no option of biding your time until the next president comes to power (at least in the short-term, and who’s to say that the president after Xi will forego a never-ending term of his/her own?). Mao, who also had no term limit, would purge those who criticized his policies (one of which later resulted in 30-50 million deaths). While I cannot make assumptions as to whether Xi will be similarly autocratic, it is a possibility. Hence, Xi’s eternal presidency means he is likely to create a government too scared to find fault with his policies, even when they’re potentially harmful.

Moreover, internet control has increased under Xi: just after his announcement, the government temporarily banned the letter ‘N’ on the off-chance Chinese internet-users could use it to denote n>2, representing Xi serving more than two terms. Phrases such as “I disagree”, “migration” and "immortality" were also banned. A Baidu (Chinese search engine) employee stated that they had received edicts to prioritize pro constitutional-change articles on their news section; 13 other Internet news companies later confirmed they had received similar edicts. While the Chinese government is notorious for internet censorship, Xi clearly intends to reduce the relative autonomy the Chinese previously had online.

In terms of foreign policy, Xi will probably continue to become more aggressive. Over his first term he has shown greater hostility in territorial disputes in the South China Sea (remember the Senkaku Islands?). One issue that is close to home for many of us is the marked decrease in Hong Kong’s autonomy. Xi has also stated his desire to take back Taiwan. An extended presidential term means Xi has the time and political clout to achieve these aggressive foreign policy aims.

Potential Advantages

Cartoon by South China Morning Post, depicting Xi's vow (2013) to fight both "tigers" (powerful leaders) and "flies"(lowly bureaucrats) in his anti-corruption campaign.

But perhaps there are upsides to this radical constitutional reform. Xi came into office in 2012 promising to crack down on corrupt officials and promptly organized the largest anti-corruption campaign in the history of Chinese Communist rule. Over 120 high-ranking officials have been expelled from the CCP, with some sentenced to life in prison. More than 100,000 people have been indicted. While skeptics say this is an effort to rid himself of political enemies, the process of ‘elimination’ has undergone reform to become more depoliticized and rules-based; for example, Xi has strengthened internal regulations to make sure the officials in charge of rooting out corruption do not abuse their power.

In addition, Xi has been a strong advocate for free trade. And without fear of political repercussions, since his presidency isn’t in danger, he can push through economic reforms that may not be popular, but are necessary for long-term growth. For example, under Xi China has increased ‘deleveraging’ (reduction in the debt percentage of the economy), including attempts to clean up debt-laden state-owned and private enterprises. While painful in the short-term, deleveraging is necessary in order to make further economic growth sustainable and efficient.

The Belt Road Initiative map (Source: The Economist)

There could also be foreign policy benefits - China has increased investment into Africa, helping to fund infrastructure and capital building. Xi doubled this Chinese investment to USD $20bn from 2013 to 2015. He has also shown great enthusiasm for his ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, which boosts trade and economic growth across Asia, such as pipelines in Pakistan and railways in Eastern Russia to build a modern day Silk Road. Yes, this will increase China’s ‘sphere of influence’ - but is this a bad thing? It is stimulating growth where there was previously stagnation and we should remember that China single-handedly pulled 800 million people out of poverty. With enough time to truly see these projects through, Xi could make a real geopolitical difference in consolidating China’s status as a superpower- and I’m sure the countries he helps along the way won’t complain.

Xi is also committed to environmental protection- at his first Party Congress as president in 2012, he incorporated green development into the CCP Constitution, and has punished over 6000 officials for negligence over their handling of environmental protection. Most critically, he actually believes in climate change - unlike a certain American president.

In my opinion, Xi will improve the economy and foreign policy, at least from China’s perspective - I’ll leave it up to you as to whether you think China being a superpower is a good thing. However, the Chinese will continue to suffer under increasingly harsh control under Xi. Ultimately, I think that the constitutional reform is a mistake - while Xi may not be the worst choice as a perpetual president, who’s to say another Mao won’t come into power after him?

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