The Chinese presidency is getting closer to a Maoist-inspired absolute power. Its objective: to gain world leadership.
In line with the 21st Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which has included the thoughts of Xi Jinping in its charter – thereby making him the equal of Mao –, the People’s National Assembly is preparing to revise the Constitution and remove the rule that the presidency is limited to two five-year terms of office.
The way is therefore open not only for Xi Jinping to stand for president in 2023 when he will be 69 years old, but also for him to be president for life. The institutionalization of the dictatorial nature of Xi Jinping’s power goes hand in hand with the return of the cult of personality and a volley of public appointments in both the government and the Party that remove any opposition.
This swing toward an imperial presidency marks a major break with the principles set out by Deng Xiaoping for the modernization of China, so as to prevent another Cultural Revolution. The maintenance of the Communist Party’s monopoly of power, which was brutally reasserted during the repression of the Tiananmen movement in 1989, was accompanied by the adoption of collective leadership, the limitation of the exercise of supreme power to ten years, and a relaxation in ideological control of the economy, society, the educational system and the media. All this is now null and void.
Xi Jinping is also laying to rest the illusion put about in the West that conversion to capitalism would inevitably lead to China’s moving toward a market economy, to the establishment of the rule of law and to China’s acceptance of an albeit impaired form of democracy. It is now being proved that capitalism and technology are not strengthening democracy in China, but strengthening démocrature [a combination of democracy and dictatorship]. Also, the fact that China is now involved in global exchanges and payments does not mean that it subscribes to Western values – rather it is challenging them head on. And its extraordinary rise to power has been with a view to taking over world leadership from the USA and not to increasing global stability.
Xi Jinping justifies his unlimited power by the need to reform the Chinese economic model and to speed up the extension of its power, which has been enabled by Donald Trump’s dismantling of the tools of American power.
The transformation of a development model based on low export costs into a more qualitative growth, focused on domestic demand and the service sector, is essential. However, Xi’s first mandate gave priority to the assumption of power rather than to reforms. Economic transformation therefore has to be increased, with the aim of reducing indebtedness, shadow finance, pollution and poverty, using the internationalization of the yuan as leverage. China’s ambition is to overtake the USA in the technology sector, particularly with regard to artificial intelligence.
At the same time, China’s global strategy to become the leading world power by 2030 is going ahead at full steam, characterized by four main thrusts. Firstly, the reassertion of the Party’s monopoly and its ideology. Secondly, putting the dividends resulting from growth into the hands of Chinese businesses and employees to the detriment of foreign firms. Thirdly, expansion in the China Sea, notably by militarizing strategic islands, putting more pressure on Taiwan and turning the USA’s traditional allies in Asia against them, e.g. the Philippines and Malaysia.
Finally, extending the Chinese economic and political model by means of the new silk roads. This involves spending 1,000 billion dollars in a hundred or so countries in order to gain control of infrastructures that are crucial to globalization as well as sweeping into multilateral organizations – like those concerning free trade and climate agreement – which has been helped by American withdrawal.
And yet, China’s return to a Maoist-inspired absolute power is not without considerable risks. The modernization of the economy and the move toward high value-added services that favor know-how and innovation are not easily compatible with greater ideological control and repression. The imperial and arbitrary nature of the presidency, together with the cult of personality, are generating strong reactions among the elite, young people and civil society, whose vitality remains valid despite the absence of universal suffrage. Unlimited power involves huge risks of external troubles should domestic difficulties arise. By straying from Deng’s path of prudence and by setting out on the path of open technological, military and strategic competition with the USA, Xi’s China frightens, and it weakens the globalization that has enabled its ascension. There is no example in history of any venture into unlimited personal power with a happy ending.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 5th March 2018)