An Earthquake in China, Or Just a Slight Shift?

The most populous country in the world has just come under the rule of one man for as long as he wants.

China’s National People’s Congress voted on Sunday to remove term limits on President Xi Jinping. Experts say this makes him the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, and warn that it could end up as Mao’s regime did, with a top-down fanaticism that triggered violent upheavals and mass starvation.

However, the change does not necessarily portend disaster, nor is it as great a change as it at first seems.

In a process that took all of 10 minutes, the Congress voted to approve a constitutional amendment that does away with a presidency that had been limited to two consecutive five-year terms. Now, Xi will not have to step down when his second five-year term expires in 2023.

A less publicized, but perhaps no less important, constitutional change that was passed on the same day was the establishment of a powerful national anti-corruption agency. The National Supervision Commission (NSC) will rank as an authority on a par with the cabinet, the supreme court and the state prosecutor’s office, making it virtually an independent branch of government, though this too will be under Xi’s control.

The vote was almost unanimous. Out of 2,964 ballots cast in the Great Hall of the People, there were only two No votes, with three abstentions. There was zero suspense. In fact, as the Time correspondent observed, “jaunty instrumental music played” as the “hand-picked” delegates voted. Xi himself inserted his ballot paper in a big red box bearing the official seal of state that stood at center stage in the immense hall.

The predictability of the event, references to a rubber-stamp Congress and to Xi’s already well-defined status as “China’s chairman of everything,” indicate that it was not a seizure but rather a consolidation of power.

That is not to say that the vote was merely ceremonial. It was unquestionably an historic landmark. The question is, though, what kind of history it will make?

Chinese officials sought to justify the move, saying that abolition of presidential term limits is intended only to bring the office in line with Xi’s other positions — general secretary of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission — neither of which are encumbered by term limits.

The explanation sounds more like esthetic theory than statecraft. It just would not do to retire Xi from the presidency while he continues to run the other two juggernauts of the Chinese regime. The West just doesn’t appreciate the Oriental passion for symmetry. It doesn’t bother Americans that the president of the United States is not also chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Actually, beyond the inner circles of power, things may not change much. Even during the tenure of Xi’s predecessor, Deng Xiaoping, when the country was ruled more by committee, it was an authoritarian state, allowing little dissension or opposition.

In this case, the unanimity in the People’s Congress cannot be taken as a reflection of the feelings of over a billion and a half Chinese citizens, notwithstanding Xi’s declaration last week that these constitutional changes express the “common will of the party and the people.”

The well-known writer Ma Bo posted a message decrying Xi’s thrust for autocracy.

“History is regressing badly,” Ma wrote. “As a Chinese of conscience, I cannot stay silent!”

“There’s a lot of fear,” said Ma. “People know that Xi’s about to become the emperor, so they don’t dare cross his path. Most people are just watching, observing.”

The disharmonious posting was swiftly removed by state censors. A similar fate was meted out to other critics on social media, where the government blocked some comments and posted others praising the amendments.

With “Xi Jinping Thought” also enshrined in the constitution this week (uncomfortably reminiscent of “Quotations from Chairman Mao,” “the little red book” they used to wave during the Cultural Revolution), there will likely be no more tolerance for dissenters than there has been in the past.

Outside China, since Xi continues to be supreme leader, the assumption is that foreign policy will stay the same, barring the unforeseen. China will continue to be China, grasping for hegemony in the Asian Pacific and bristling at criticism from the U.S. while it does so.

It’s not a pleasant reality, but in international relations continuity is important. As Liu Jiangyong, a professor at Renmin University’s School of International Relations, put it, “The more Xi Jinping’s position is consolidated and the longer his governing time is to last, the more secure it is for the continuity of the policies.”

On the other hand, an increasingly personalized rule could also increase uncertainties.

Peter Marino, founder and policy director of The Metropolitan Society for International Affairs, wrote recently that the change will make “Pekingology even trickier for outsiders.” The high-level consensus forged by Deng is no more, and the decision-making process, never very transparent, is likely to become more opaque, and susceptible to the whims of the man at the top.

“Analysts may end up being somewhat more in the dark in the near future than we were in the recent past,” he said.

In any event, China belongs to China, and the rest of the world must watch and wait.