Xi’s centralization of power has prompted claims that he is less of a president and more of a monarch who seeks absolute power.
Xi Jinping is the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which, since 1949, has been China’s only ruling political party.
Since 2013, Xi has also held the title of “President of the People’s Republic of China,” but there is some controversy over the title in light of the growing authoritarianism the Communist leader has ushered in.
However, “president” is only one of many titles from which Xi derives his authority.
The ruler is also the State Chairman or Chairman of the Central Military Commission, the Commander-in-Chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the General Secretary of the CCP, with the titles differing in use based on the context.
Xi’s military label, for example, is used solely for affairs related to the PLA. “Chairman,” on the other hand, was the title that allowed former leader Mao Zedong to institute a new constitution that dissolved the office of the state chairman and allocated sweeping control to the party chairman until Mao’s death in 1976.
Seven years later Deng Xiaoping introduced a more-modern constitution that revoked many of Mao’s rulings, reinstated the State Chairman’s office and introduced the new title of “president,” a term that has since been used for each of Deng’s successors.
The nation saw an extensive period of reconstruction and globalization in the 1980s, as Deng relaxed the government’s grip on the economy and offered greater autonomy to its people.
Mao and Xi era parallels
Xi has worked to tighten the Communist Party’s control over its people, leading some to accuse him of mirroring Mao’s prior leadership.
His resurrection of chauvinistic nationalism, along with suppression of governmental dissent, has put Xi at odds with members of the party who don’t look fondly on Mao’s draconian reign.
After Xi took office, he instigated an “anti-corruption” campaign, cracking down on hundreds of thousands of “tigers and flies” – a phrase referring to senior and lower-ranking officials accused of abusing their power. Many believed that the campaign was aimed at purging the government of any resistance, one of many actions Xi has taken in an effort to consolidate his power.
During Xi’s reign China has become more dominant in its international reach and largely gained its superpower status.
China’s gross domestic product (GDP) has jumped from US$150 billion in 1978 to US$14 trillion last year, becoming the world’s second-largest economy in the process.
The United States – which has taken increasingly aggressive steps to sanction and criticize China – has threatened to stop referring to Xi as “president,” a move some believe to be merely a political statement.
Janny Leung, a professor of linguistics at Hong Kong University’s School of English, described the US threat as merely a “war of words – a way to diminish the legitimacy of the CCP in this current US-China tension.”
Ultimately, Leung said, China would not be the first dictatorship to use terms associated with democracy. Leung pointed to North Korea and its official name as the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” as an example of this.
During China’s rise, it has continued to suppress its citizens’ freedoms. From increasing online censorship to arresting thousands of activists and human rights lawyers, Xi has made it known that he is a militant political strategist who will not abide any opposition.
Xi has also assured that his political ideology is formally written into the constitution – a privilege that had previously only been reserved for Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
The “Xi Jinping Thought” amendment states that any criticism of the president can be treated as a threat to the Communist Party and to national security more generally. The National People’s Congress voted 2,958 in favor of the amendment, with two against and three abstaining.
Then, in March 2020, China’s parliament amended its constitution to again broaden Xi’s power and nullify presidential term limits.
Removal of term limits
After the country’s ”rubber-stamp” legislature passed an amendment to eradicate presidential term limits, Xi is positioned to stay in power indefinitely, confirming long-standing speculation.
Deng had established a limit of two five-year presidential terms in 1976, warning against “the leadership of a single person.”
To prevent a return of Mao’s era, Deng cautioned against “the excessive concentration of power … particularly the first secretary, who takes command and sets the tune for everything. In the end, unified Party leadership is reduced to nothing but the leadership of a single person.”
“China emerged from the chaos of the Maoist era precisely because it moved away from one-man rule and toward collective leadership,” Carl Minzner, a China specialist at Fordham Law School and the author of “End of an Era,” told The New Yorker. “Start pulling out those very building blocks on which the entire edifice is built, and what is China left with?”
Despite this, state media has justified the amendment as crucial in order to unite the president’s three major functions – as president, head of the party and head of the military – as the other two also have no term limits.
Xi’s power is not boundless and he is likely to only remain in power if he continues to bring economic prosperity to the country. Restructuring may not be working, but it is worth considering China’s progress towards eradicating rural poverty.
Regardless of whatever opposition may exist within the party, Xi would have to show substantial incompetence for anyone to attempt to remove him from power. For now, at least, there are no suitable heirs that the CCP believes can effectively reform the system.
And so, Xi remains. His authoritarian leanings have led some to draw parallels to the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin, but the two leaders are miles apart.
On its current course, Xi’s economy and military will pose a far greater threat to America than Russia’s. As unconventional as Putin has been with regard to constitutional norms within Russia in post-USSR times, he did not attempt to abolish his country’s term limits when his presidency came to an end in 2008.
Rather, Putin devised a plan for Dmitry Medvedev to serve as president for a single term while he himself moved into the role of prime minister before eventually returning to the presidency in 2012.
Even before China removed presidential term limits, the ability of citizens to organize political protests had weakened to its lowest point in decades.
In March of 2018, US President Donald Trump was criticized for endorsing Xi’s infinite rule, saying, “President for life … I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”
Despite this, most see China’s removal of presidential term limits to be yet another step on the road to full-blown authoritarianism.
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