Written by C Uday Bhaskar.
The Communist Party of China (CPC) made a cryptic statement of enormous political import on Sunday, 25 February, when it announced that its Constitution would be amended to remove a clause that had previously restricted the tenure of the Chinese President to two terms of five years each.
In effect, this amendment is Xi Jinping-specific, for the Chinese President is to be formally elected by the National People’s Congress to a second five year term in March. This time however it will not be his last – as it was for his predecessors Jiang Zeming and Hu Jintao.
Supreme Leader for Life
Born in June 1953, Xi will turn 65 years old this year, but has many years ahead of him, if his more illustrious peers, with whom he is now compared, are a benchmark. At the 19th party congress held in October 2017, Xi Jinping was elevated to join the ranks of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping – the ‘big two’ in the Chinese political pantheon.
For the record, it merits to recall that Chairman Mao retained power till he was 83 years old and his successor Deng Xiaoping (born 1904) was the all-powerful, bridge-playing quiet leader who relinquished control only when he turned 85. So by this yardstick, China will have to fasten its seat-belt till about 2033 – at the very least – and prepare for a long flight with Xi Jinping in the cockpit.
Images of the two leaders sitting on a traditional Indian swing along the river front in Ahmedabad led to a flurry of optimism about the dawn of the Asian century. However this was short-lived when troops from the People’s Liberation Army were found to have made a deep incursion across the line of actual control (LAC)
Sunday’s announcement of lifting the two-term ban in effect lays the ground work for making Xi Jinping the supreme Chinese leader for life. More worryingly however this course of action may also sow the seeds of domestic discord and dissonance that could morph into unexpected defiance at a later date. This is not an unfamiliar pattern in China and Xi Jinping would be deeply aware of his own father’s orientation apropos the Great Helmsman Mao.
Skeletons in the Closet
One recalls a very muted conversation in Beijing some years ago, when Xi Jinping was the newly minted leader to succeed Hu Jintao and at the time, the Bo Xilai scandal had come into the public domain.
During my conversation with some astute Chinese intellectuals, one made an observation to the effect that in the struggle to reach the top of the political pyramid in China, perhaps there would have been blood on the floor in the no-holds-barred fight to the finish. In one of those very understated but deeply significant observations, my interlocutor noted : “forget blood” – in the Beijing political feuds for the top job, there would be no (dead) bodies that would remain visible!
So the emerging paradox is likely to be that of a very powerful leader in Beijing with no visible sell-by date, who could become deeply insecure and suspicious of peers – and succumbing to the pitfalls of untrammelled power that turns paranoiac, when there are no internal checks and balances.
The political history of the last century is replete with such presidents, and they do not end well.
Implications for India
What does the near-permanent Xi Jinping era mean for India, which has its own political strong man in Prime Minister Narendra Modi ? It may be recalled that the Modi tenure began on a promising note in relation to China when President Xi was accorded a very warm welcome by the Indian PM in September 2014 to his native state of Gujarat.
Images of the two leaders sitting on a traditional Indian swing along the river front in Ahmedabad led to a flurry of optimism about the dawn of the Asian century. However this was short-lived when troops from the People’s Liberation Army were found to have made a deep incursion across the line of actual control (LAC) in Ladakh, Kashmir.
This served to overshadow and ultimately muddy Xi’s first visit to India.
During Modi’s tenure from 2014 to 2018 the record is mixed. Sino-Indian relations hit a new low during the Doklam crisis of 2017 and to its credit, the Modi government kept a low profile but held its own in relation to Chinese intimidation, this time routed via Bhutan and Sikkim and not the traditional hot spots of Arunachal Pradesh and the north-west states.
It is worth noting that Doklam occurred in the months before the 19th Congress, at a time of maximum political risk for Xi Jinping and thus raises the question of causality.
With President Xi now firmly set for a third and perhaps even a fourth term, India will have to prepare for a Beijing that will be more militarily assertive – whether it is in the South China Sea or closer to home in Doklam, South Tibet or Kashmir.
Impact on India-China Ties
There is no certitude about who the Indian Prime Minister will be in 2019, though on current balance, the BJP and its top leadership exude a certain confidence about a second term for a Modi-led dispensation.
The texture of the India-China bi-lateral relationship – whether it will be more brittle and discordant, or malleable and accommodating, will be determined by the perspicacity and integrity, or the lack thereof that President Xi will bring to his office — with the new-found assurance that there is no term limit to mark an end to the ‘Xi era’ in Chinese politics.
For the Chinese citizen, is it a case of ‘long live the new emperor?’
C Uday Bhaskar is a retired Commodore in the Indian Navy and currently serves at the Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi. He tweets at @theUdayB. This article was first published on the online magazine The Quint and can be found here. Image credit: by Indian Ministry of External Affiars/Flickr.