President Xi Jinping’s second term was meant to come to an end in 2023. However, the news that the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee has moved to eliminate the constitution’s two-term limit for presidents suggests he plans on staying in power longer than this – and perhaps indefinitely. The rest of the world will now have to figure out how best to deal with him.
Xi is currently 64 years old, which means he could dominate Chinese politics until 2030. This would let him implement his ambitious ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, to link Eurasia through Chinese infrastructure and trade, and the ‘Made In China 2025’ plan, which aims to make China a manufacturing leader in advanced technologies like aviation, energy and IT. It would also allow him to put in place further policies to reach his overall goal of making China a ‘great modern socialist country’ by 2050 – just at the 100th anniversary of the takeover of China by Mao Zedong in 1949.
Xi’s power grab is being reflected against perceived tribulations of Western democracy. The Chinese media is crowing that democracy is ‘ulcerating’ around the world – and Xi’s assumption of potentially unlimited power is being portrayed as natural, rather than dangerous. The Communist party has painted Xi’s move as an expression of popular support, but there has also been a widespread backlash online – and a subsequent crackdown against any dissidence.
Mao’s ghost now looms over Xi’s tenure. To begin with, Xi is now regularly recognised as the most powerful leader since the legendary Mao. At the 19th Party Congress last autumn, ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ was proposed to be enshrined in the Constitution, putting Xi on a formal par with Mao and Deng Xiaoping. And, just as Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward was supposed to make China a powerful, modern nation, Xi’s 2050 plan harks back to the same dreams of forever putting China’s backwardness behind it. There is little fear that Xi will unleash the same chaos on China, but whether he will succeed in his grandiose visions is equally questionable.
Xi is similar in many ways to Vladimir Putin, who has reshaped Russia’s foreign policy, often in ways that have been detrimental to global stability. Xi has shown an aggressive approach to China’s territorial disputes in Asia, a tendency that may only grow once he is unfettered. The prospect of having to deal with Xi for years to come may induce other Asian nations to be more accommodating of Chinese policies. In particular, it will put pressure on leaders like Japan’s Abe Shinzo and India’s Narendra Modi to consider just how much they can resist China’s growing influence in the region.
It was under Xi that Beijing decided to build militarised bases in the South China Sea. As China continues to strengthen these bases, Xi may become more willing to exert pressure on the nations that depend on those waterways for access to the global economy. Traditional allies such as Laos and Cambodia will cleave closer to China, but Vietnam and the Philippines, which have a complicated relationship with China, may also decide that there is little option but to accommodate it while its powerful leader is in office.
Washington, too, will have to think more carefully about how to forge a productive working relationship with Xi. The Chinese leader clearly feels the wind at his back and has shown a willingness to push back against President Trump’s economic salvoes. Yet without a real alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, or failing to revitalise the Asian Development Bank as a counterpart to Beijing’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Washington is at risk of seeing its influence continue to decline.
But Xi also faces a host of problems that will challenge his façade of steadily growing Chinese power. The country’s macroeconomic growth rate is likely to continue to slow, due to a combination of the maturation of the Chinese economy and the drag of debt, corruption, inefficiency, a shrinking labour force and the like. While China’s neighbours may feel more intimidated with Xi staying on indefinitely, the host of disputes they have with Beijing could also become a major headache for Xi. Just as worrisome would be an accident in the South China Sea or on the Indian border. This could spiral out of control and force Xi either to back down or come down even harder.
Given his past actions, the world should expect a continued publicity blitz from China’s new paramount leader. He will want to make the case that history is on China’s side and that it is all but inevitable that Beijing will become the most important world capital in the 21st century. Even if that turns out to be true, dealing with Xi’s increasingly assertive policies will likely become even more challenging. It may well lead to an era of increased suspicion, resentment, and fear.
Michael Robert Auslin is an American writer, policy analyst and historian. He is currently the Williams-Griffis Fellow in Contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University