The South China Morning Post reported on Sunday that the mainland Chinese authoritarian one party state will accede – essentially rubber stamp Chinese President Xi Jinping’s expressed intention of assuming dictator for life status. They quoted the Chinese government’s official state media’s editorial organ, China Daily, on the subject:
“Over the past two decades, a trinity of leadership consisting of the CPC Central Committee general secretary, president of the nation and chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission has taken shape and proven to be effective. Removing the two-term limit of the Chinese president can help maintain the trinity system and improve the institution of leadership of the [party] and the nation.”
What the editorial does not acknowledge is that essentially the “trinity of leadership” is mere window dressing, where one man sits in three chairs. The formal removal of term limits has everything to do with sending a signal to Chinese citizens and the rest of the world that the Chinese Communist Party is intent on maintaining a stranglehold on power within the country. Any sort of limitations on executive and centralized power in China are in reality nothing more than temporary and mutable suggestions subject to withdrawal at any time.
On the surface, there might appear to be a distinction, however cloudy, between the status of a titular leader of a global power like China and a tyrant in a smaller, isolated country in Africa, (Gambia, Uganda) unwilling to leave office after his term has expired. The reality is that there may be a surface difference but there is no meaningful difference.
China does not even pretend to have a democratic system. Since the presidency of Jiang Zemin, the anti-democracy leader who came to power in the aftermath of the Tienanmen Square massacre, executive power in China has been consolidated in one central leader. Xi, as Jiang, holds power over the party, the military and the bureaucratic state apparatus.
What are the main implications of Jinping’s move to hold onto power indefinitely? A little background on post-Mao China is useful.
Even though commerce and industry have been liberalized to the extent that to varying degrees, private enterprises can function and generate profits with the supervision of the party – no such corresponding easing of control over speech or tight political control have been enacted.
Although in past years there have been ebbs and flows in the degree and extent to which the party’s police state regime have enforced restrictions on non-authorized political activity, Xi Jinping has presided over a severe crackdown on speech and dissent.
A main focus of Jinping’s disapproval is the burgeoning ‘civil society’ movement. Civil Society in the context of mainland China, means that citizens should have greater access to decision making in villages and communities, the justice system should be reformed, more freedom of speech and a general focus for human rights.
All of this, together with their irrational paranoia of the non violent Falun Gong movement, is considered by Chinese party leaders as an existential threat to their ongoing dominance and more importantly, their ability to loot the economy.
As such, provincial authorities have understood the intentions of the national government and taken consistent and incredibly brutal steps to break the back of civil society and its components – citizen advocate lawyers, human rights activists, labor advocates, environmental defense groups and non-government organizations (NGO’s).
With the implicit approval of Beijing, people accused of being enemies of the state are reported by human rights groups to have suffered beatings by police and jail personnel, attacks committed by fellow inmates sanctioned by prison administrators, sleep deprivation, starvation, denial of water and medical attention, psychological abuse and especially infliction of severe torture.
In reality, there really is not a great deal of variance in how perceived opponents of the regime are dealt with in China and how they are handled by North Korea. For example, Chinese authorities extract public and televised confessions coerced from detainees by the use of torture. The Guardian reported, for example that last year reports emerged that rights lawyer Xie Yang was subject to beatings and stress positions in detention, with interrogators warning him: “We’ll torture you to death just like an ant”.
Even though the cover story from the Chinese public affairs spokesmen is that Xi needs to extend his rule in order to advance the international interests and prestige of the nation, no one inside or outside China, believes it. Xi still holds the reins of both the mechanisms of internal control – the security police and their reinforcements, the military. It is a scarcely implied but clearly understood verity that in China, “the party commands the gun”.
Xi’s formalized status as dictator for life, poses a risk factor to China, says Hwang Jae-ho, from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. He sees Xi’s autocratic status and personality cult as insulating him from any information that might contradict his views and policy prescriptions. “When Xi becomes authoritarian and has few people making good suggestions, it will be easier for Xi to make wrong decisions; and for the same reason, if wrong decisions come out, the possibility of being corrected quickly is low,” Hwang said.
Hwang is not alone in this assessment. “There’s a risk of it become courtier culture, sycophancy, just telling him what he wants to hear,” says Professor Nick Bisley, an Asia expert at Australia’s La Trobe University. Meanwhile President Trump has not questioned the illegitimacy of the Chinese government, has not defended human rights and has not even taken the token moral statement of ceasing to import his and his daughter’s apparel products from China.
Even important and influential persons in China are stepping forward to object, despite the threat of incurring the wrath of Jinping.
Wang Ying, a businesswoman who has publicly called for reform, wrote on WeChat that the Communist Party’s proposal was “an outright betrayal” and “against the tides.” “I know that you (the government) will dare to do anything,” she wrote, “and one ordinary person’s voice is certainly useless. But I am a Chinese citizen, and I don’t plan on leaving. This is my motherland too!”
Li Datong, a former editor for the state-run China Youth Daily, wrote that lifting term limits would “sow the seeds of chaos.” “If there are no term limits on a country’s highest leader, then we are returning to an imperial regime,” Li told the Associated Press on Tuesday. “My generation has lived through Mao. That era is over. How can we possibly go back to it?”
Unfortunately – as deplorable as conditions are at the present, with a power hungry megalomaniac like Xi, there is every possibility that more people will become the broken eggs for Emperor Xi’s grand omelet.