Why you should care
Because the results could turn the world away from democracy.
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The temperature hovered well below freezing, the day Xi Jinping took the stage at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In an age of terrorism and refugees, rising nationalism and widening income gaps, it felt as if years of optimism had given way to a chill felt around the globe. The Chinese president noted that anxiety in his keynote speech: “Many people feel bewildered and wonder: What has gone wrong with the world?”
The problems in the worldwide economy were myriad, but Xi had a solution: namely, China, a steadying force in a troubling sea. And now just a little more than a year later, the 64-year-old has a prescription for who should calmly guide that ship: himself.
On Sunday, the Communist Party of China announced a proposal to remove the two-term limits for presidents, paving the way for Xi to lead long past 2023 and perhaps indefinitely. The move culminates a shift from the consensus rule that has dominated Chinese politics for decades and puts Xi in the category of one-man rulers not seen since Mao Zedong, whose influence endured for more than 40 years. And Xi’s ambitious play extends beyond Chinese domination. He joins Vladimir Putin of Russia and the recently deceased Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore in building a government around strongman leadership, in direct contradiction to the diffused democracies of the West. “China is putting forward one model for how a modern society may organize itself,” says Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former deputy staff director of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
China’s leaders are … doubling down on this bet that they can both maintain innovation and maintain strict political control.
Jamie Metzl, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council
It’s a gamble for Xi, one that bets China can keep its dynamism while not becoming “stilted and sclerotic” by single-party rule, Metzl says. If that gambit proves successful, the model could spread in a way unheard of since World War II — especially as more open governments in the European Union and United States have been destabilized amid populist takeovers in the form of Brexit and the election of President Donald Trump. “This is a very, very challenging time” for democracy, Metzl says. “China’s leaders are seeing that and doubling down on this bet that they can both maintain innovation and maintain strict political control.”
“Today, we also live in a world of contradictions,” Xi told the world in Davos, and it’s fitting that he — a man of contradictions himself — has been tasked with somehow combining democratic industrialism with autocratic authority.
This lover of American mob films, from The Godfather to The Departed, has nonetheless waged an anti-corruption campaign that his critics say allows him to purge the party of dissidents indiscriminately, while his fans welcome it for bringing much needed reform. Just this weekend, his government seized control of Anbang, an insurance giant, a move that could have been timed to bolster support for Xi ahead of Sunday’s news. Married to a literal rock star, a famous People’s Liberation Army singer, he is a much more cautious scholar of Confucian political theory, which promotes stability, and fears the political disorder allowed under democracy. And despite being born a crown prince of the communist party, Xi lived in rural poverty for years after his father, Xi Zhongxun, was purged from all leadership positions by Mao, in part after he supported the publication of a book that praised a competing communist leader.
After studying chemical engineering at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, Xi spent time in the military and briefly studied agriculture with an American family in Muscatine, Iowa. After returning to China, he held a series of government posts in prosperous coastal cities, from Fujian to Zheijang and Shanghai, before being named a Politburo Standing Committee member and a key part of President Hu Jintao’s succession plan in October 2007.
He now occupies the top offices of the party, the state and the military, an exalted rank that has earned him titles like China’s “paramount” or “core” leader. And although Xi has taken steps toward consolidating his power, he does face some roadblocks. Some read his move as a sign of market weakness: “Authoritarian leaders tend to arise during periods of negative social mood,” says Mark Galasiewski, chief Asia strategist for Elliott Wave International. “China’s main stock market index, the Shanghai Composite Index, is still down by 46 percent since its 2007 high. And Xi is not the only authoritarian leader to have consolidated power in the wake of the global financial crisis.”
China has a more established political system than Russia or Singapore, meaning Xi will have to continue appeasing various sects even if he is to remain a figurehead for the foreseeable future. Establishment politicos will likely be pleased with the continuation of his leadership, which has coincided with strong economic and political gains. But up-and-comers may feel stifled. And Xi also has enemies, particularly those targeted by his anti-corruption sweeps.
What is certain is that Xi has no plans to lose. Looking back at his father’s legacy, it’s somewhat ironic that Xi is unraveling the consensus-rule policies that “recalled to life” his father — to take a phrase from A Tale of Two Cities, another favorite of the Chinese autocrat. After the Cultural Revolution and the fall of Mao, his father was reinstated in 1981 and became a leader in economic liberalization laws. The experience might have taught Xi the perils and abuses of autocracy, but in light of his recent moves toward imperialism, perhaps that suffering taught him a different lesson, suggests Metzl: “It certainly showed him what happens if you lose a political struggle, so he has no intention of doing that.”