Special to WorldTribune.com
UNITED NATIONS — Following the celebratory Lunar New Year holidays, China’s ruling Communist Party announced that Chairman Xi Jinping, the current President, would be allowed to stay in office beyond the constitutionally proscribed two-term limit.
A tweaking of the constitution would allow in effect Xi, who assumed power in 2013, the opportunity to remain in power as long as he wishes.
Why give up when you are having so much fun? After all it’s Chairman Xi who promoted the visionary “China Dream” plan and who’s engineering the massive Silk “Belt and Road Initiative” which signals both China’s global infrastructure building ambitions and strategic outreach program.
So now as the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress dutifully meets in Beijing for its annual clap/cheer/chant session it appears that riveting constitutional change will be on the agenda too.
Why is this so troubling for China and the wider world?
We know Beijing’s authoritarian polity offers the usual mix of economic prosperity amid fanciful figures, tub thumping nationalism, and self-righteous historiography, all set to the clap on cue chorus of the National People’s Congress. But since the more rational days of the post-Mao era, the “deal” that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) struck is that the paramount leaders of the world’s most populous country, would scrupulously stick to a decade in power before handing the mandate of heaven to the next comrade in line.
Significantly the system allowed for collective leadership, which often resembled the board of directors of China Inc., more than the aged Politburo of the Maoist era.
This all started with Deng Xiaoping who, as a victim of the horrors of Maoism and the so-called Cultural Revolution, feared that the rule of a cult like figure as was Mao Tse-tung was not only a domestic disaster but a dangerous harbinger for the future.
To his credit, Deng paved the path for agricultural and economic reforms which led to some freedoms which during the past generation have certainly changed China for the better.
Yet the political structure remains profoundly static and unchanged with the ruling Communist Party as the sole arbiter of power. Nonetheless to assume Xi’s accession to the CCP’s undisputed pinnacle of dictatorship equals a return the dark Maoist era remains problematic. Despite his iron-grip on Chinese politics, and the CCP censorship in the state run media, the economic genie is long out of the bottle.
Middle class Chinese traveling to Europe or the USA see for themselves that there’s a prosperous outside world.
Whether or not Chairman Xi likes it, Mainland China has profoundly changed since Mao the “Great Helmsman” died in 1976. Despite its continuing political atrophy, China nonetheless has a strong business sector which has thrust the PRC into one of the world’s major economies and commercial forces. The China of Mao’s era was an agricultural land besot by deep poverty, inefficient production and a smug socialist self-reliance which guaranteed the PRC would stay poor. This is no longer the case.
Contrary to Western perceptions, China is hardly a booming market economy as much as a mercantile Corporate State under the leadership and patronage of the CCP and its various family cousins and sycophants.
Many Chinese even among the educated and entrepreneurial classes have made a kind of Faustian pact with the CCP; the current system until now has provided order, prosperity and national pride without recourse to a heavy handed secret police, the ubiquitous labor reform camps, and perennial shortages.
There’s always been a strong element inside China which remains captivated, indeed enchanted by the totalitarian temptation. Namely the sanguinary appeal of brute power which characterized the Peoples’ Republic from its inception in 1949 until the years immediately after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on democracy. It equally encourages Beijing’s geopolitical threats both against democratic Taiwan as well as its military expansion in the South China Sea, the Mare Nostrum of Chairman Xi.
But there’s still the tug of war between Shanghai’s bling-bling society and economy versus the vast reaches of “China profound” where grit and hardscrabble living still encompass the majority.
That unseen Chinese majority is probably closer to Chairman Xi’s coercive charms than Western democrats would care to imagine.
From the time of the missionaries and merchants until today’s high-tech giants, Western eyes have traditionally viewed China through the prism of wishful thinking mixed with occasional disdain and contempt.
The rationalized paradigm that the People’s Republic has no choice but to “change,” especially given this generation of amazing socio/economic development, pre-supposes that change will be one of our liking. Xi Jinping begs to differ.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]