Written by Olga Krasnyak.

Xi Jinping’s recent announcement ending the term limits of China’s presidency cannot be considered as shocking, at least for those who are familiar with how the signs of authoritarianism emerge.  The changing of a state constitution to suit a national leader’s ambitions is as much the story of Putin’s Russia as Xi’s China.

The original constitution of the Russian Federation in 1993 stipulated a four-year presidential term and a maximum of two terms. After the eight years in the presidency from 2000-2008, Vladimir Putin managed to “skip” the following four years, giving the seat to Dmitry Medvedev whilst taking on the portion of prime minister. At that time, a change in the constitution was made expanding the presidential term to six years. Putin was re-elected for his fourth term in March 2018 and is thus eligible to run in the upcoming presidential election in 2024.

If the past is prologue, there is a very low probability that anyone other than Vladimir Putin will be Russia’s president and thus Russia will have been governed for 24 years by a single man who has consolidated all the powers of the state.

The patterns of emerging authoritarianism in Russia and China are threatening for the liberal democratic world. In this regard, acknowledging the situation from different angles including a very careful look at the personal characteristics and the background of national leaders may be a help in constructing and simulating future geopolitical scenarios.

Russia and China are very different powers, whether viewed from an economic or demographic perspective. One is rising, the other is surely falling. However, common trends can be identified — the consolidation of authoritarian power followed up by geopolitical ambitions and plans of regional and global predominance at the expense of the liberal international order.

Russia pursues a very active foreign policy, searching to reclaim the empire it lost in 1991 and reclaim the Soviet legacy based on its existing military and nuclear capability. With Beijing’s recent missile deployment in the South China Sea, the Doklam crisis of 2017 and the drive to integrate Hong Kong and Taiwan into the mainland, China has signaled a similar intention. For now at least its ambitions are limited to Asia, specifically the maritime spaces along its border and the regions where the West intruded in the 1800s.

The absence of working democratic institutions is dangerous. Countless historical examples of how authoritarian and totalitarian regimes emerge and evolve contain one similar feature which is a personal ambition of a “strong” leader to obtain even greater power.

History also tell us that the results are easily predictable and lead either to a systematic crisis and stagnation at best or to a catastrophe at worst. The role of a “strong” leader is important, dangerous, and should not be obscured. Personal biographies shed light on a “strong” leader’s behavior. Going through a biography is not a tale about poking around someone’s laundry but an attempt to understand and explain a leader’s political style and manners, even to foresee their further steps. There is a real chance that Putin’s and Xi’s passage to power might be predetermined by their background. The biographies of both are different but demonstrate similar characteristics of a desire to claw the way to the top.

Putin and Xi were born in 1952 and 1953 respectively. Putin came from a very ordinary family. The official version of his biography made reference to the very modest circumstances the family came from. Putin’s fascination with martial arts may be taken as necessary to prove his masculinity and physical power. According to this logic, once he achieved power it could not be lost.  In contrast, Xi came from a high-level family within the Communist Party. His father fought alongside Mao in the Chinese Civil War, but was arrested and eventually imprisoned for the duration of the Cultural Revolution. Xi was sent to the countryside for the “re-education” for seven years, doing manual chores and subsisting on rice gruel. Xi was hardened by the experience. The recent change in the Chinese constitution confirms this, once he had achieved power, he would not relinquish it easily.

The rhetoric of ‘brutal power’ and strong persuasion reappears as a cornerstone in Russia’s and China’s foreign policies. In his above mentioned election speech, Putin argues that areas of geopolitical conflict are escalating and that Russia is ready to use weapons. This warning may cause turmoil and distort the world order but once again it must be seen through the lens of his personal traits. It is very dangerous that a nation is hostage to the personal ambitions of a leader. Unfortunately, Russian and Chinese allegations have already provoked regionally and globally nervousness e.g. the discussion of Russia’s role in American politics or Australia’s attempts to push against China’s growing influence.

The patterns of emerging authoritarianism in Russia and China are threatening for the liberal democratic world. In this regard, acknowledging the situation from different angles including a very careful look at the personal characteristics and the background of national leaders may be a help in constructing and simulating future geopolitical scenarios.

Olga Krasnyak is a Lecturer of International Studies and World History at Underwood International College of Yonsei University, Seoul, South Korea. She tweets at @OlgaKrasnyak. Image credit: CC by the President of Russia.

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