Xi’s rule for life: what does our anxiety reveal?

“With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat” (John Milton)

A mere five lines in a Sunday bulletin by Xinhua, China’s news agency. Come Monday morning, a mention buried on page 2 of the People’s Daily. It’s clear that China’s propaganda machine wanted to treat the ending of the two-term limit on Xi Jinping’s mandate as a non-event, and not as the momentous change that it is for China.

And yet, in another sense, it was almost a foregone conclusion. Xi Jinping’s life began in the inner sanctum of China’s rulers, a modern equivalent of the Forbidden City. But when the Cultural Revolution struck, this became his Paradise Lost.

In a revealing mid-life autobiographical interview, Xi said “The knife is sharpened on a stone; people are strengthened in adversity”. So it proved to be. From the backwoods in Shaanxi province, he applied 10 times to join the Party, eventually clawing his way back to Zhongnanhai over the course of two decades. Did we think he would stop half-way?

Surely not. That Xi would go on to accumulate greater power than any Chinese leader since Mao could be seen from his first year in office. He played factions against one another as Mao did, used accusations of graft to silence enemies (following Deng), and restored a top down Leninist Party state the like of which Liu Shaoqi could only dream in the 1950s.

With Xi acquiring life-long authority over the world’s rising superpower, we can no longer blind ourselves to the fact that 'history' has returned

Given the enemies that he made on the way, it is also hard to see how he could ever hint at relinquishing power and risk their revenge. So the real question is, why are we still so surprised and shocked?

Perhaps, for reasons that have more to do with us than with Xi Jinping or China.

Post-modern thought has dominated since the end of the Cold War. The end of ideology, the great convergence that globalization was supposed to bring about, and the gradual disappearance of armed conflict have led Europe and to some extent the United States to believe in ‘the end of history’: a benign Jurgen Habermas-Barack Obama project supported by a gaggle of economists. True, some nails stuck out, notably Vladimir Putin. But he could be seen as a hold-out on the road to decline of a second-rate power.

The return of personality politics in many democracies is already raising question marks about that worldview. But with Xi Jinping acquiring life-long authority over the world’s rising superpower (if he so wishes) we can no longer blind ourselves to the fact that history has returned.

History, of course, is usually fraught with conflict. Official China has been increasingly frank about a systemic competition with democracies. And Western predictions about an imminent slowdown in China’s growth have not materialized. By contrast, the identity challenges of open societies and diminishing returns from globalisation have created democratic crises in advanced economies.

There is no telling which way China will go from here. Dreamers (or foreign apologists for despots) still stress that an all-powerful Xi could now push through the systemic economic reforms that have gone out of the window during his first five years.

Tellingly, this is not a view shared by Chinese experts or citizens. Instead, social media reactions (despite extensive suppression) suggest that many Chinese fear the return of personality cult and sycophancy that brought disaster to Chinese society in the past.

American political folklore says that the vice-president is only one heartbeat away from leading the country. China, on the other hand, is passing through an extraordinary moment when one flick of the finger by Xi Jinping could unleash momentous change or freeze the country (starting with the party-state) – both with huge and unforeseeable consequences.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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