20 July 2019
At a meeting last week, Xi Jinping described China's political system as 'a great contribution to political civilization of humanity.' Photo: Bloomberg
At a meeting last week, Xi Jinping described China's political system as 'a great contribution to political civilization of humanity.' Photo: Bloomberg

Why China is now holding up its political system for emulation

Last October, China raised its leader to dizzying heights when it wrote “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” into the Communist Party constitution.

Now, the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, has incorporated the thought into the state constitution. It has also shed some light on what the “new era” holds. It will be an era when Xi, who was formally elected to a second five-year term as president on Saturday, would be able to continue in office indefinitely, since term limits were lifted by the congress. At the same time, he holds two other key positions – leader of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission – making him by far the most powerful person in the country, without real curbs.

In China, term limits have a special meaning. The United States introduced term limits after Franklin D. Roosevelt had been elected to four consecutive terms as president, and there was a feeling that that was too long a period for any person to have so much power. In China, term limits were introduced after the death of Mao Zedong to ensure that no future leader could emerge who would be in a position to bring about the massive abuse of power, including the calamity known as the Cultural Revolution, that characterized Mao’s 26-year autocratic rule.

In doing so, China is taking a huge risk with its future. It seems to have forgotten the adage, “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” No matter how good and wise a leader may be, he is human. Is it wise to give any human being such untrammeled power?

The party’s propaganda organs have been busy defending this seemingly retrograde action. The China Daily in an editorial applauded the development, saying that China now has “a resolute helmsman to guide its journey of rejuvenation and lead it to the realization of its dream of becoming a prosperous, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful modern socialist country.”

This is the realization of the China Dream, which Xi Jinping articulated in November 2012, when he became leader of the Communist Party. According to the schedule he has laid out, it will be fully realized in 2050. By that time, Xi will be 97 years old.

Before his formal assumption of power in 2012 as the party’s general secretary, Xi served five years as heir apparent, during which time he evidently planned the moves he would make to consolidate his power, including the anti-corruption campaign and One Belt, One Road.

One indication of Xi’s attitude toward China and the rest of the world was provided when he visited Mexico as vice president in 2009, during the global financial crisis.

While addressing an overseas Chinese audience, Xi asserted proudly that China had made the biggest contribution to the world by feeding the 1.3 billion people in his country.

He also chastised foreigners – read westerners – with “full bellies” who “have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country.”

Now, China is busy courting Third World countries. Towards the end of the parliamentary meeting, Xinhua, the state news agency, reported that “international scholars and observers” approved of the Chinese constitutional amendment, including inscribing Xi’s thought into the state constitution.

Xinhua cited experts from Azerbaijan, Jordan, Lebanon, Russia, Ethiopia and Kazakhstan who believe the amendment would not only help safeguard China’s domestic development but also world peace. Significantly, perhaps, no American or European scholars were cited.

The official party newspaper, the People’s Daily, reported that “the world wants to know the secrets of China’s success” and is “regarding the Chinese approaches as role model.”

“It is universally believed that with a view to modernizing its system and capacity for governance,” it said, “China is making increasingly important contributions to global governance.”

The emphasis on holding China up as a role model for the world is new. As recently as December, Xi at a gathering of political party leaders from other countries, said, “We will not ask other countries to copy the Chinese practice.”

But Xi himself is now holding up the Chinese political system for emulation. At a meeting last week of the country’s top advisory body, he described China’s political system as “a great contribution to political civilization of humanity.”

It seems China wants more authoritarian countries to emerge, based on its model. The ambitious Belt and Road Initiative involves dozens of countries with which China will have to deal. Having authoritarian governments in place, especially those that take China as a model, will make negotiations much easier.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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