Tue, Mar 06, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Xi Jinping’s turn to despotism is born of frailty, and will not last

Following the Chinese president’s purge of opponents through his anti-corruption drive, his faction now cannot risk a power transition for fear of consequences

By Will Hutton  /  The Guardian

It was breathtaking, even if inevitable: China has abandoned its constraints on one-party rule.

In 1980, Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), the author of the Chinese miracle, wrote into the nation’s constitution 10-year term limits for Chinese presidents and committed the country to the rule of law. Certainly, China would continue as a one-party state, but it would be one that operated within constitutional bounds. Never again would the country suffer the depredations of a despot like Mao Zedong (毛澤東). Deng even held out the possibility that by 2030, China might become a democracy with a properly independent judiciary.

No more. On Feb. 25, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-run People’s Daily announced that Chinese President Xi Jinping (習進平) would be carrying on in office indefinitely. Equally ominously, the constitutional commitment to the rule of law — in any case more observed in the breach — was to be transformed into a commitment to “wielding the law to rule.”

No prizes for guessing who would wield that law. A newly drafted first clause in the constitution, in line with the “thoughts of Xi Jinping,” states that the “leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is the most essential feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

So, alongside his indefinite general secretaryship of the CCP and indefinite term as leader of the Chinese armed forces, Xi is now president of China for life, with no requirement to uphold an impartial system of justice, however qualified in reality. It is a move from autocracy to despotism. Xi is to become the contemporary emperor of China, but unlike previous emperors, he will define and use the law to support his regime rather than attempt to offer an impartial system of justice. You cannot run a continent of 1.3 billion people on the basis of structural injustice.

Thus China’s future is foretold. Yes, the immediate prospect is not great, but dictatorships do not last forever. Like imperial dynasties before it, imperial communism will suffer a succession of revolts from below that will be met by increasing repression until, finally, the system blows up. Censorship, already intense in China, was ratcheted up another notch with last week’s temporary ban on the letter N: Bloggers could no longer refer to Xi serving n terms.

Yet Xi will age, like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and other “strong men,” and will be terrified of giving up power because of what his enemies will do once he no longer holds the reins. Within China, the moves are portrayed as a sign of strength. The truth is the opposite — and reveals with savage starkness the impossible dilemmas facing the Chinese leadership.

Xi, on taking power five years ago, had no option but to launch a series of highly public anti-corruption drives. The party’s legitimacy was falling to new lows as its leaders shamelessly accumulated vast wealth through back-handers and bribes. However, Xi’s anti-corruption drives could not attack his own power base: They could only be political in character — arriving at the point today where he and his circle cannot countenance an orderly transfer of power in 2022 for fear that they will be rounded on in turn. The party can only go on, hoping that economic growth, growing international power and ruthless nationalism will be sufficient to hold off its growing internal critics.

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