LAST Sunday, China’s National People’s Congress (or Parliament), as expected, adopted a controversial plan to remove the 10-year presidential term limit from the country’s Constitution.
This cleared the way for President Xi Jinping to stay on beyond 2023, the end of his second five-year term limit, as top leader for life. It also confirmed Xi’s status as the most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong.
The lifetime mandate for Xi, 64, made known before the start of the annual legislative session, has sparked fears among Chinese nationals about a rollback to the Mao period that witnessed many cruel and horrible mistakes committed by the Communist Party of China during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.
Political analysts have warned that China could be heading dangerously towards a one-man dictatorship and authoritarian rule, without checks and balances.
Despite fears and criticisms on the ground, the proposal was endorsed by the NPC last week, with 99% or 2,958 delegates supporting the motion. Along with this constitutional amendment was the setting up of a powerful anti-graft agency.
Defending the move, NPC spokesman Zhang Yesui argued this would merely align the presidency with the titles of Communist Party general secretary and Military Commission chairman, which do not have term limits.
“It is conducive to uphold the authority of the central committee of the party with comrade Xi Jinping at the core to unify leadership,” Zhang said before the voting.
China Daily said in its editorial: “The changes are necessary for the nation’s progress by upholding and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era. They are of great significance to ensure prosperity and the lasting security of the nation.”
“The amendments to the Constitution will provide a basic guarantee for China to safely navigate the challenging course that lies ahead and realise its long-anticipated rejuvenation.”
This constitutional change could be a double-edge sword for China, depending on whether Xi “will become a good or bad emperor”, according to a China watcher in Malaysia.
“In the history of China, the country produced a good emperor every 500 years. The last good emperor was Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722) of Qing Dynasty. But subsequent to that, the bad emperors caused the collapse of China,” observes the Malaysian.
He notes that while Mao had been a great revolutionary leader in modern China, the tail end of his long rule was marred by the Cultural Revolution.
“Is Xi going to be a good emperor for the rest of his rule? It is too early to see. But judging from his track record so far, he is leading China in the right direction.
“He is using the right people to help him weed out corruption. He wants government and party officials to set good examples. He is putting the country back on the right footing after four decades of economic reform that has bred greed and corruption,” he says.
Tan Sri Lee Kim Yew, a property investor in China, says he supports the life mandate given to Xi based on what he has done in the past five years as president.
Xi, he observes, has inherited “the moral fibre of a ruler” entrenched in the ancient political system of China 5,000 years ago.
“I admire Xi’s leadership. But the challenge now is that he must soon identify a successor who must be as good and capable as him in ruling a huge population of over 1.3 billion.
“He must also have to think of unexpected situations where he may have to leave his post suddenly for whatever reasons to avoid a destabilising political power struggle,” Lee tells Sunday Star.
Currently, there is no heir apparent to Xi’s leadership.
The need for Xi
Many believe there is a need for him to stay beyond 2023, given that China requires a capable and tough leader – which Xi has proven to be one – to confront domestic and international challenges, and to achieve the goals in rejuvenating China.
Last October, Xi declared long-term goals for China to become a “global leader”, with a “world class” military force by 2050.
Xi’s China Dream includes the eventual unification with self-ruled Taiwan, which broke away in 1949.
The other is to make the country an innovation leader in sectors, ranging from aircraft to new energy vehicles and biotechnology, in the “Made in China 2025” initiative.
Within China, there is a commitment to bring about structural economic reforms to achieve high quality growth, from quantitative growth.
And the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative promoted by Xi in 2013 could also see greater benefits to China in the form of trade and investments within five to 10 years.
At the opening of the NPC on March 5, Premier Li Keqiang set a GDP growth target of around 6.5% this year, with further reforms on state-owned enterprises, fiscal and tax measures, and the financial system.
The lower 2018 GDP growth target despite stronger-than-expected 6.9% growth in 2017 reflects the Government’s resolve to push for high quality growth, according to Nomura Research.
As corruption is rampant among the political elite and influential businessmen, the Government will have to continue its war to stem this disease.
So far, Xi has shown that he could be ruthless in punishing corrupt officers and party cadres, regardless of how powerful these “tigers” are.
His popular campaign against corruption has seen China penalising more than a million party officials. And this could only continue if there is political commitment.
Hua Po, a political commentator in Beijing, told AFP that Xi was handed “a mess” when he took office five years ago and needs more time to achieve the goals.
“One of the greatest tasks after he took office was to remove all threats to the party and state. To do this, it is not enough for him to serve only two terms,” Po said.
It appears Xi also needs more time to pick and train his successor so that all his efforts for the nation are not wasted.
“The Chinese system is a system that requires strong leaders, but it’s not easy to train a strongman. If Xi transfers power too soon, it is likely that the power will be returned to the hands of the corrupt groups and the elite class,” Po says.
The other issue that needs an iron fist to deal with is the pollution in China. Very often, this is also a by-product of greed and corruption.
Although China is advancing green technology and encouraging foreign investments in eco-friendly projects, cleaning up polluted air and restore a sustainable eco-system will take time.
Having set poverty eradication as an urgent task, Xi has said he wants to see all Chinese nationals living in comfort with “no one being left out”. The leader, who often visits the poorest parts of China during the Chinese New Year to check what they eat and how they live, wants to eradicate poverty by 2020.
Whether this goal can be achieved will depend on official programmes and implementation. Last year, about 730 million yuan for projects for the poor was siphoned off by corrupt officials, the current NPC session was told.
Since opening up its economy to the world, China has lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty.
But there are still 30 to 40 million living in abject poverty in inaccessible rural areas and mountainous terrains. The task of helping this group is challenging indeed.
Confronting the US
It is obvious China needs a firm leader to deal with the United States and its allies.
So far, Xi has shown that he is capable of handling Sino-US disputes arising from the unpredictable policies of President Donald Trump.
“Due to the persistent adoption of provocative tactics and the use of confrontational language on the part of the Trump administration towards China, Sino-US relations will be, at best, choppy in 2018,” says HKTDC Research.
In fact, the tariffs introduced by the United States for imported washing machines, solar energy equipment, steel and aluminium products have triggered international concerns over growing US protectionism.
Warning that a trade war will not be beneficial to all, China has said it will retaliate with “effective measures” against such measures.
Although many nations are looking towards China for global leadership, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated at a recent media conference that Beijing has no intention to replace the United States on the world stage.
However, Wang said China should play a bigger role in regional international affairs as a permanent member of the United Nations’ Security Council.
“This is what we ought to do, as well as what many others expect us to do,” Wang said.
Ramifications in the region
Staying on longer in power provides Xi the needed time to push through his vision of a strong China with global clout, and this has profound ramifications for the region and beyond, according to Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior adviser to ASLI.
Xi will remain as president, party secretary general and military head beyond 2023.
“Scrapping term limit certainly entails extensions for the foreign and economic policies China under Xi,” Oh says.
Xi’s continuous rule may bring “cautious optimism” regarding North Korea.
“When dealing with Pyongyang’s nuclear tests, Xi’s administration has shown flexibility in its foreign policy. This means working in concert with the mainstream of the international community to deal with a recalcitrant North Korea is likely to continue,” says Oh.
Towards Japan, Beijing’s diplomatic stalemate with Tokyo is likely to continue for as long as Xi and his counterpart Shinzo Abe remain in office, due to Japan’s efforts to remove pacifist constraints on its military and China’s constant reminders of Japanese atrocities during World War II.
As China is building up and modernising its military force, Taiwan’s pro-Beijing commentators said there is a possibility of China taking back the island by force “in a matter of several hours” if President Tsai Ing-wen provokes China by declaring Taiwan as an independent state.
China has stated reunifying Taiwan with force will only be the “last resort”. But the meddling in Taiwan affairs by the United States may quicken the reunification process, say commentators.
Adjustment in Asean
Xi has championed China’s international agenda, from his Belt and Road Initiative to sovereign claims in the South China Sea.
“Given that Xi is here to stay for some time, the region needs to come to terms with a more assertive presence by China,” writes Dr Oh in South China Morning Post.
A longer rule by Xi would mean Asean nations would have to adjust to China’s more aggressive presence in the region.
“For most countries in the region, this could be a positive scenario,” Dr Oh says, citing that the massive investments under the Belt and Road Initiative in Asean countries should continue unabated.
According to security analysts, South China Sea claimant countries might have to adopt certain strategies to counter China’s assertive territorial claims, building up of military structures and islands in the disputed waters.
Due to their self-interests, Asean has shown it could not forge a united stance on issues relating to the South China Sea. Hence, it can only hope that China would sign the Code of Conduct soon and adhere to its terms.
As it is, Asean is supporting US freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and some members are welcoming the visits of US military ships to provide a stabilising force in the region.
In addition, Asean is seen forging closer ties with Japan, Australia and India, which are wary of China’s rising international influence.