On February 9, 1796, Qianlong, the sixth emperor of the Qing dynasty and the leader of China at its pre-modern peak of power, size, and prestige, abdicated in the 61st year of his reign in favor of his 35-year-old son. Though, until his death three years later, Qianlong continued to exercise power from behind the scenes, the fact of his abdication was crucial to his subjects’ understanding of his dynasty’s legitimacy.
Qianlong chose to abdicate one day before the length of his reign would have matched that of his illustrious grandfather, Emperor Kangxi. Kangxi’s unprecedentedly long reign was viewed as a kind of golden age, and Kangxi was still held in high regard. For Qianlong to outshine his grandfather would have been viewed as immodest, reflecting poorly on the House of Aisin Goro, as well as on the throne itself; his abdication helped to preserve public respect for the imperial office. Sometimes politics requires compromise, even when you’re the emperor.
On February 25, 2018, Xi Jinping took a decidedly different approach. In successfully pushing for a removal of the formal term limits on the presidency of the People’s Republic of China, the 64-year-old Xi has done two major things. Most obviously, he has set himself up to continue ruling (and I think “ruling” is now the right word) for the rest of his life. But more importantly, he has also fractured the final remnants of the post-Mao Zedong Communist Party leadership consensus forged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And in so doing, Xi has fractured what remains of global models and understanding of the incentives and functioning of Chinese politics, transformed China into something more unambiguously dictatorial, and opened up a new and potentially dangerous fissure in Chinese elite politics. The implications are enormous.
The economic, social and human disasters of the Mao years left the leadership of the Party understandably wary of the concentration of too much power in the hands of one person for too long. When Deng Xiaoping emerged from the succession struggle that arose after Mao’s death – eventually outmaneuvering Mao’s handpicked successor Hua Guofeng - Deng built a political consensus to support his economic changes that emphasized the need for limits on time in office, as well as what has often been termed “collective leadership.” This latter idea enshrined the importance of formal representation by, and negotiation among, various factions within the party at its highest levels, especially on the Standing Committee of the Politburo (PSC), the organ that became something of an executive committee during the Deng reform period. Even in an autocratic system, there are competing interests and ideas about the direction of rule, and Deng’s collective leadership model kept the peace among them for decades, while China prospered under his policies.
Since Xi’s appointment as vice-chairman in 2008, and especially after his accession to the chairmanship and presidency in 2012, Xi Jinping has given every indication of an interest in overturning this model. Even while still nominally behind Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao in the hierarchy, he regularly stole the international spotlight from his bosses. Upon becoming president, Xi altered the composition of the PSC, shrinking it from nine to seven, and broke with previous norms favoring balance on the committee to be instead strongly in favor of his clique. Last October, he successfully maneuvered to have his name and ideas added to the party constitution, an honor that was denied both of his predecessors, and to be named the “Core” of the party, a title closer to something for Mao than anyone since. The move to eliminate term limits for the presidency merely continues the trend.
One immediate effect of this could be that analysis of Chinese politics will become even trickier for outsiders. Much like the Kremlinology of the Soviet years, “Pekingology” has relied on secondhand and indirect information filtered through a set of ideas and assumptions of the way Chinese elite politics functioned, in order to assess intent and purpose. But these analyses were all centered on an understanding of the high-level consensus forged by Deng that held the leadership together, and set predictable constraints on their actions and interests. By terminating this set of rules at the highest levels, Xi has sent a message that anyone elevated by that system may no longer be protected by it. Alliances and patronage networks may be rewritten and reordered, and for reasons that will be hard to discern from the outside. Analysts may end up being somewhat more in the dark in the near future than we were in the recent past.
This also means the political direction taken by China could tend toward more extreme actions overall, which is often a factor of highly personalist rule. Despite China’s cultivated outward monolithic political appearance and Xi’s actual popularity among many, stemming partly from his war on graft, there remain significant pockets of dissatisfaction with his policy direction within the party. These groups have little chance of organizing any kind of resistance to Xi at the moment, but new rules might allow reorganizations, purges, or crackdowns that even in the recent past might have seemed off the table. One-man rule is unstable at the top, and the new consensus will shift attitudes below. It will be unsettled.
One crucial caveat to this change is to remember that Xi simultaneously occupies several positions in the hierarchy, and that the change in presidential term limits affects only his position in the formal government, not his position as chairman of the party, which is the ultimate source of political power. One possible interpretation of this is that Xi felt his consolidation at the party congress last year was sufficient to position him there, and that this is the follow-up to that. Whatever the case, the accumulated effect of these changes has all but guaranteed that as long as Xi is alive and the party is in power, he will in charge of the country. His reign so far has been a series of signals to the world and to China itself that business as-was is now over. China is back, and it’s got an emperor again.
Peter Marino is the founder and policy director of The Metropolitan Society for International Affairs, an NYC-based think tank, and senior researcher at the Global Narratives Institute. @nycitywonk
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.