China’s 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) overwhelmingly voted to allow Chinese President Xi Jinping to stay beyond the two five-year presidential term limits, signifying the continued consolidation of the trinity of Chinese national leadership positions under one man: the state leadership (President of China), party leadership (General Secretary of Central Committee of the Communist Party of China), and military leadership (Chairman of the Central Military Commission). The unprecedented turn of events met a firestorm of political reactions from the west, with media outlets branding Xi as “Emperor Xi,” and arguing that he was dismantling the post-Deng Xiaoping order.
This observation is not without basis. There have been the following strong indicators of President Xi’s consolidation of power in recent years: firstly, Xi was labeled the party’s “core leader” (核心领导) in 2016; secondly, he holds more portfolios than his two predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, such as the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms and the National Security Commission, among others; thirdly, his political thought, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义), was enshrined into the party and state constitutions while he was still in office; and lastly, the leader that was supposed to succeed Xi in the 20th Party Congress in 2022 was not promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee during the 19th Party Congress. As a consequence, Xi is allegedly China’s strongest leader since Mao and Deng. Noticeably, if Mao had the Little Red Book and Deng had the Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Xi has The Governance of China.
Domestic Political Factors and Xi Jinping Thought
Apart from the mainstream narrative that Xi is appropriating methods of Maoist political conservatism or autocratic statecraft, China’s domestic imperatives and external conditions prove useful in examining the motivation behind the abolition of term limits. Early in his first term, Xi warned that corruption could kill the party and destroy the country. It may be recalled that one of the contributing factors that led to the emergence of the Tiananmen Square or June Fourth Incident in 1989 was massive corruption by the party elite.
To make the nation internally coherent to be externally competitive, Xi decided that there ought to be greater control over the party and the state, which includes the preemption of potential decentralization of power from rival factions. Another reason why continued stable political leadership is needed is that China is in the process of restructuring its economy and is facing looming external challenges such as tensions with the U.S. on trade, Taiwan, and the South China Sea (SCS). Hence, the extensive Anti-Corruption Campaign (反腐倡廉), strict enforcement of party discipline, stronger control over the media, and the passage of tougher national security laws. In exchange for an extended term limit, Xi offers the Chinese people a path to the “Chinese Dream” (中国梦) of the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation” (中华民族伟大复兴), or the grand mission to become a “Great Modern Socialist Country” (社会主义现代化强国) that is “prosperous” and “strong” by 2049.
With Xi slated to remain in power for more than 10 years, it is important to pay attention to his political theory, “Xi Jinping Thought.” According to Shen Chuanliang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Chinese political theories are guides to political practices. For instance, when Mao was in power, “Mao Zedong Thought” (毛泽东思想) was what ushered China to independence, and in the Post-Mao Era, it was “Deng Xiaoping Theory” (邓小平理论) or “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” (中国特色社会主义), the theory of integrating socialist values with capitalist practices (state capitalism with a market economy) that enabled China to rise.
China draws its confidence from its achievements over the last 40 years. This development story embodies what the Chinese mean when they say they will contribute the “Chinese Solution” (中国方案) and “Chinese Wisdom” (中国智慧) to the world. As China continues to rise in global economic rankings, so will its soft power and argument against the Western prescription that liberal democracy is the best political model for industrial success.
Chinese Foreign Policy in the New Era
Xi Jinping Thought is arguably a formal policy affirmation that China has risen as a great power and has moved on from Deng’s maxim of “biding one’s time and hiding one’s capacity” (韬光养晦). In Xi’s speech at the 19th Party Congress last year, he confidently remarked that China has reached a “new historic juncture in development,” the Chinese nation has “stood up, grown rich, and become strong,” and that the new era “will be an era that sees China moving closer to center stage and making greater contributions to mankind.” The fulfillment of these plans, as sources of both internal and external Chinese political legitimacy, will be more crucial as Xi stays longer in power.
Xi’s political thought, in connection with the Chinese Dream, has two significant implications on Chinese foreign policy. The first is the continued development of China’s Comprehensive National Power (综合国力). Xi made it clear at the 19th Party Congress that China should be a “mighty force” on political, economic, military and environmental issues, and become a respected scientific and technological power. Notably, in Xi’s first term, China convened a World Political Dialogue, became the global leader in e-commerce and financial technology (covering 40 percent of the global online market with 700 million Internet users), was the largest investor in artificial intelligence (AI) and renewable energy, and produced the world’s largest radio telescope. The United States has openly acknowledged China’s rise. In fact, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, mentioned that China would pose the “greatest threat” to the United States by 2025. Second, in Xi’s New Era, China has positioned itself to play a greater role in shaping global governance. In this respect, Xi has espoused two principal diplomatic precepts: “striving for achievements” (奋发有为) and the “Community of Shared Future for Mankind” (人类命运共同体).
Both notions aim to score diplomatic goodwill points, and demonstrate that China’s approach to multilateral activism and regional diplomacy is not ideological, but practical (sustainable security). Some examples of this are China’s environmental (the Paris Climate Agreement) and development commitments (e.g., the UN Sustainable Development Goals and South-South Cooperation), championing of free trade and globalization, hosting of major events and conferences (e.g., Boao Forum for Asia, World Internet Conference, and International Expos), and the provision of international public goods (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Belt and Road Initiative.)
The Chinese Dream includes the long-term strategic goal of a world-class military. This, put differently, connotes a further expansion of Chinese power asymmetry vis-à-vis other regional states. This would have a substantial effect on China’s stand on sensitive policy issues, where the defense of core and strategic interests trumps international liberal norms and global public opinion. Despite this, China’s rise also brings about opportunities for regional states. As Xi’s term extension signifies an extension of Chinese overseas interests and influence, regional and SCS-claimant states should have a smart and strategic foreign policy in dealing with Beijing, by anticipating where the risks of conflict lie and monitoring where strategic opportunities may be realized.