China gained the world’s attention recently when it announced that it will be likely ending term limits for its president. The move will allow Xi Jinping to run for a third term beyond 2023. The “recommendation” will be voted on at the Chinese National Congress this week and is poised to pass. Since the 1980’s China has limited term limits to ensure that the one-man rule under the crushing dictatorship of Chairman Mao would not repeat itself. For China to reverse itself like this, shows just how powerful Xi Jinping has become.
The move brings apprehension among many. Some analysts in the U.S. see that it might make worse an increasingly tense relationship with China. But those inside China such as academics, lawyers, journalists, and businessmen fear a continuation of Xi’s policies that have imprisoned many dissidents, tightened the noose on free speech, and increased oversight of the economy. For sure, there will not be any signs of protest over the change in term limits since Xi Jinping has cracked down on free expression since he first came to power in 2013.
Jerome A. Cohen at the Council on Foreign Relations writes, “Xi’s move will have a profound effect on world order. It will enable him to move more boldly and increases the risk of his acting arbitrarily and perhaps mistakenly in international relations. It will surely hinder China’s efforts to be respected for ‘soft power’ as well as military and economic prowess.”
Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, describes the issue more succinctly and to the point, “Where does one ever see the ‘president for life’ model end well?”
Xi has been a charismatic leader with boldness and creativity as underscored by the South China Sea reclamation moves and the Belt and Road Initiative. The West has chronically underestimated him. Not since Moa has a Chinese leader exercised so much power. The move from autocracy to dictatorship is just the latest example of the West being caught off guard by China’s moves. This certainly warrants a reassessment of how the world views China.