Xi Jinping: President for Life

18 March 2018


Chinese politics was dominated by Mao Zedong from 1949 to 1976, and for more than a decade before that if we count the period from the Long March forward. Mao was effectively President for Life of China, though he wasn’t called that. However, he was called “The Red Emperor.” After the chaos of the Cultural Revolution some effort was made to regularize the political system after Mao’s death, and, to a certain extent, China managed to present itself to the world as a “normal” nation-state under the rule of law (not under military rule, or in the grip of a warlord or a strongman) and with a political succession that, while entirely internal to the communist party, seemed to follow certain rules. There was a semi-orderly succession process from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping.

This façade of orderly political succession occurred throughout a period a spectacular economic growth for China. Given that economic growth at this pace can result in extreme social dislocation, it reflected well on the Communist Party of China’s firm grasp on power that it was able to preside over this orderly succession of political power during economic and social conditions that would prove challenging even to a stable and well-established political system. In consequence, the CPC seemed to be a source of strength, stability, and order for China at a time when much else was in flux.

The apparent solidity of the CPC and its own internal mechanisms for orderly political succession have now been revealed to be illusory. It has been clear for some time that Xi Jinping has been the strongest political figure in China since Deng Xiaoping, but we now must see him as the strongest figure in China since Mao Zedong. This month, the CPC eliminated term limits for the president and vice president, re-appointing Xi Jinping as president with no term limit. What this means is that a sufficiently powerful individual can bend the CPC to his will, so that the power is vested in the individual rather than in the party or its offices. And given that the CPC is the political institution of China, that these institutions can bend to the will of one man points to the weakness of CPC institutions. In other words, China is much more vulnerable than it appears on the surface.

To a remarkable extent the western press have given Xi uncritical coverage during his rise to power. A few China specialists discuss how the elements of Shanghai clique were pushed aside in Xi’s rise to power, and some of the internal machinations of the state machinery, but much less than the issue deserves with China now the second largest economy in the world, and the largest nation-state on the planet in terms of population. Most notable of all is the uncritical coverage of Xi’s “anti-corruption” drive, which has given Xi the moral high ground in cleaning house and consolidating power. I have not read a single account in the western press that has observed that the anti-corruption efforts in China have left Xi’s inner circle entirely untouched. But who is going to take a stand in favor of corruption? Consolidating power by punishing rivals for corruption is a winning strategy.

Now that we know that China is a nation-state secondarily, and primarily the domain of a strongman, all that follows will depend on Xi himself. If Xi cares about the Chinese people and their welfare, he will use his power to strengthen the institutions of the country and will make it possible for an orderly political succession after he leaves power. But Xi could just as easily transform China into the largest kleptocracy on the planet, or into a tyranny, or any number of suboptimal outcomes. The stakes are high. The lives of more than a billion persons are in play. Much of the world’s manufacturing is sourced from China; rare is the supply chain that does not incorporate China at some point.

Even if Xi proves to be an honest and competent leader, China’s position in the world economic system is placed at risk merely by the revelation of the weakness of its institutions. China has put a lot of effort into trying to convince western businesses that China is a stable place to do business, where assets would not be arbitrarily expropriated and international legal norms would be respected. There is no reason to believe that this will suddenly change, but the weakness of the CPC is (or ought to be) a red flag for every business operating in China. The economy is stable at present, but that could change with a single executive decision on the part of Xi.

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2 Responses to “Xi Jinping: President for Life”

  1. PetarPetrovic said

    Well well, it’s been 7 years since I made that “fateful” comment on this blog that the power of the American carrier battle groups on the high seas would not be challenged for decades, up to half a century, and while I might have to shave off a decade or so from the prediction, we are now definitely living in a different world from 7 years ago…

    Just wanted to say hi (again), it’s interesting to see how quickly the world or at least our opinion of it changes. I was ~20 when I made that comment, already now at 28 I can say that the times have changed…

    • geopolicraticus said

      Yes, times have changed, but China is still a very long way from challenging US carrier groups on the high seas. They have one carrier operational and another in construction. Their carriers are as vulnerable as anyone else’s carriers. Without redundancy, they cannot sustain any ocean going operation. They will build toward redundancy, but that kind of capacity-building takes time.

      Best wishes,


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