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Xi Jinping’s Great Leap Backward

The Chinese leader's bold accumulation of power is upending post-Mao conventions and fueling territorial designs.
xi jinping

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s move to eliminate the two-term limit for the presidency and vice-presidency of the Chinese state reflects his belief, and the belief of cadres and officials, that the much-praised system of Chinese communist governance had failed. As Thomas Friedman of The New York Times wrote in May, “Xi’s allies argue that his crackdown on corruption; his repeal of term limits, which positions him to rule for what could be decades; and his tightening of the control that the Communist Party wields over every institution was urgent because collective rule did not work.”

The notion that collective rule was failing is at odds with the widespread view that China’s brand of authoritarianism was actually succeeding, a view shared even by prominent regime critics such as Columbia University’s Andrew J. Nathan. Nathan, in an influential article in the Journal of Democracy titled “Authoritarian Resilience,” argued in 2003 that the Communist Party had managed, despite everything, to find a winning formula of governance. Authoritarianism, he suggested, may be “a viable regime form even under conditions of advanced modernization and integration with the global economy.”

But Xi’s actions suggest otherwise. In March, China’s National People’s Congress, acting on the recommendation of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, amended the country’s constitution to eliminate that two-term limit for the Chinese presidency. The amendment was adopted as Xi Jinping was nearing the end of his first five-year presidential term. Now, the 65-year-old Xi can serve as president indefinitely beyond 2023.

The Chinese presidency, largely a ceremonial position, is the least important of Xi’s three posts. Nonetheless, by forcing the amendment through the party, in the face of strong opposition, and then getting the rubberstamp national legislature to formally approve it, Xi made clear his intent to remove limits to his exercise of power.

His two other posts, general secretary of the party and chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, are not term-limited. Thus removing the restrictions on the presidency makes it more likely he will try to hold onto the party positions as well. Party leaders, especially since the awkward transition from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao when Jiang retained the chairmanship of the Military Commission, generally have wanted only one person to hold all three positions in what is now called the “trinity leadership pattern.”

To understand these dynamics, it is helpful to survey the history of Chinese governance following the death in 1976 of Mao Zedong, an early member of the Communist Party and first leader of the People’s Republic. Mao’s successors institutionalized themselves by smoothing out successions, promoting meritocratic politics, modernizing a large bureaucracy, and establishing the means of political participation to strengthen legitimacy.

All this led Nathan to conclude the Chinese system would work, notwithstanding its many challenges. “Regime theory holds that authoritarian systems are inherently fragile because of weak legitimacy, overreliance on coercion, overcentralizaton of decision making, and the predominance of personal power over institutional norms,” Nathan wrote. “This particular authoritarian system, however, has proven resilient.”  

Nathan called that system, naturally, “resilient authoritarianism.” He was contrasting China’s modern-day communism with that of Mao, who worshiped chaos, thriving on it as he imprisoned, killed, and tortured rivals off the stage in Beijing. In Mao’s China, there were, as a practical matter, no rules. His death touched off two years of turmoil, centered on the infamous Gang of Four, which included Mao’s widow. There were, not surprisingly, more jailings and deaths until the party settled on a new leader.

That new leader was Deng Xiaoping, who quickly shoved Hua Guofeng, Mao’s designated successor, aside. Deng then restored normalcy, beginning the long process of institutionalizing Chinese Communist politics. During the Deng era—he died in early 1997—the party developed understandings, norms, and rules that guided the competition among the organization’s various and ever-changing factions, groupings, and coalitions.

Among Deng’s rules was the term limit for the state presidency, adopted in 1982. More important, the party developed various unwritten understandings that guided state and party officials. There were, for instance, vague notions among the biggest factions about sharing power and maintaining a balance of sorts.

During the Deng era, the party also developed norms that later hardened into guidelines or even rules. The most important was the understanding that Chinese leaders were limited to two five-year terms as general secretary. Moreover, successors to a leader, according to these rules, were designated at the beginning of that leader’s second five-year term as general secretary.


At the 19th Communist Party National Congress held last October, however, Xi broke convention by preventing the designation of a successor. No one who might follow him was named to the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of Chinese power. Also, ahead of the 19th Congress Xi targeted an up-and-coming figure, Sun Zhengcai from Chongqing, by having him investigated for “serious discipline violations,” party code for corruption. Sun has been given a life sentence in circumstances indicating his crime was political—in other words, being in a faction not controlled by Xi Jinping.

The effect of the moves is to reverse what many previously hailed as progress. “The amendment sends a terrible signal about institutional rule,” said a former Chinese government official to the Financial Times, referring to Xi’s abolition of the presidential term limit.

In reality, however, proponents of institutional rule, both Chinese and foreign, had exaggerated progress. Only one general secretary, Hu Jintao, actually served just two five-year terms. Moreover, the peaceful transitions from Deng to Jiang Zemin and from Jiang to Hu were not real tests of Communist Party institutionalization. Deng not only picked his successor, Jiang; he also chose Jiang’s successor, Hu. In other words, the transition from Hu to Xi was the first in the history of the People’s Republic not determined by Deng. Thus, this was the first real test of institutionalization, and although that transition went smoothly it produced the figure who swiftly reversed the progress that had been achieved. Xi Jinping is deinstitutionalizing the Communist Party, abolishing norms, understandings, guidelines—and the rule establishing the presidential term limit.

Xi, seeking to reassure Chinese and foreigners during the uproar over the term limit abolition, said he was “personally opposed” to lifetime rule. But many observers reacted skeptically, suggesting Xi wants to stay on indefinitely, perhaps till he dies. Whatever Xi’s intentions or personal feelings at this time, though, he has in fact opened the door to dictator-for-life status.

Authoritarian systems, Beijing reminds us, have many advantages over democratic ones, but they have one critical failing: the possibility of great turmoil surrounding the transfer of power from one leader to the next. Most observers had assumed the Communist Party had remedied that weakness with its new institutional mechanisms, but Xi has now proven them wrong with just a few dramatic strokes.

“It is now unclear not only when Xi Jinping will depart, but how,” Mary Gallagher of the University of Michigan told The American Conservative in April. “Term limits were simply the mechanism by which the Communist Party of China successfully completed leadership transition, which is normally very difficult for regimes without elections. People in Germany may not know exactly when Angela Merkel will no longer serve as chancellor, but they are very clear about how she will leave—her party will fail to achieve the amount of votes needed to win or they will fail to form a coalition, as just nearly happened.”

Now that Xi has junked the rules-based political order, the next leadership transition in China, whenever it occurs, is bound to be especially tumultuous, just like the struggles of the Maoist era and the one at its end. In short, there is little to restrain the machinations of especially ambitious figures, which means the China of the future might be repeating the dangerous patterns established decades ago.

The future of political controversies in China, therefore, could resemble the past. During Mao’s time losers in political contests sometimes lost their lives. Deng Xiaoping’s contribution to Chinese politics was to lower the cost of failing and thereby reduce the incentive to tear the party apart. Losers during Deng’s era retired to nice homes. Hua Guofeng, for example, lived comfortably until 2008.

But Xi is upping the consequences for those coming out on the short end of political struggles. In what he has styled a new “anti-corruption” campaign but which looks more like an old-fashioned political purge, Xi has jailed more than 1.3 million officials. He has removed the venal, but it’s noteworthy that almost none of them were his supporters. They were, for the most part, either political opponents or potential rivals, like Sun from Chongqing. Moreover, Xi has betrayed the real nature of the campaign by jailing anti-corruption campaigners and leaving alone his own family members, some of whom, under the most suspicious of circumstances, have become extraordinarily wealthy since he was identified as Hu’s successor.

China, in short, is returning to winner-takes-all politics. The ultimate logic of this development is consolidation of power. Xi’s defenders now say only one-man rule—one man with “absolute” control over the party and the party having absolute control over society—is appropriate for a country of almost 1.4 billion people.

That’s a breathtaking proposition, but it has its defenders. Shanghai venture capitalist Eric X. Li, for instance, expresses complete comfort with the extraordinary concentration of Xi’s control over the Communist Party and Chinese central government. “Formally unifying these two positions at the very top will transform the entire Chinese governance structure by institutionally fusing the party and the state,” he writes on the World Post site of The Washington Post, referring to the positions of state presidency and party general secretary. “This reform is good for China simply because the party has developed into the most competent national political institution in the world today.”

The fusion of the two posts, Li writes, “will create a more efficient and coherent governing structure.” This, he believes, will bring “more transparency and predictability in China’s dealings with the world.”

Xi’s resolve to fuse party and state power may have a more mundane explanation, however. “Since taking office in 2012, Xi has been engaging in a life-and-death contest with Jiang Zemin’s influential political faction,” write Don Tse and Larry Ong on the SinoInsider site. They think Xi, motivated by “self-preservation,” had to accumulate power to fend off rivals from Jiang’s Shanghai Gang faction.

The pair believe Jiang was responsible for at least two attempted “political coups” against Xi—in 2012 and 2017—and may have caused the gyrations in China’s markets in 2015 as a means of getting rid of Xi. Tse and Ong argue that Xi had to intimidate rivals by making them think that, with no term limits, they could not outlast him. Xi’s move to amend the constitution, according to this view, was merely a bold maneuver in the party’s intense factional infighting.

As Tse and Ong correctly suggest, political struggles in Communist China never end, and these writers correctly state that “Xi’s position isn’t entirely stable.” They maintain further that he faces “grave dangers and risks” not only from factional rivals but also from “the party system itself.”

If the party system is itself dangerous to rulers without absolute power, logic dictates that China’s regime requires a strongman. Recent experience suggests that without one the system is ineffective, as it was in the Hu Jintao decade, 2002 to 2012. Then, the retired Jiang often appeared to be the dominant political figure, and Hu was often unable to exercise authority effectively. Those years, unsatisfactory in so many ways, gave rise to the views expressed to Thomas Friedman—that collective rule was a failure.  


But, if collective rule has been such a failure over the past two decades, where does the Communist Party—and China—go from here?

Internally, China under Xi has been moving from authoritarianism back to totalitarianism. The political system is now much more intolerant than it had been in decades, and these days it is far more aggressive in enforcing its intolerance. Today, for instance, there is less room for permitted speech than there was in the late 1980s. True, there are many more platforms for the Chinese people to express themselves. In the past, there was the Democracy Wall in Beijing and the fax machine; now there is the Internet and social media. The Communist Party, however, has become adept in identifying content deemed subversive, eliminating it within minutes, and intimidating opinion-makers.

And Beijing’s leaders have become bolder in stifling dissent, for instance by marrying Mao-era tactics with modern communications. Today “confessions” are no longer made before crowds in public squares, as they were during the decade-long Cultural Revolution. They are seen on televisions and digital devices of various sorts, reaching most Chinese one way or another.

Moreover, officials are developing ways to use technology to collect and analyze vast amounts of data for the purpose of controlling behavior. The new “social credit system,” where every citizen is assigned a constantly updated score, gives the party the ability to administer punishments and hand out rewards. As foreign policy analyst Ian Bremmer pointed out in Time, “The plan’s ultimate purpose, according to Chinese officials, is to ‘allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.’”

Or, for that matter, board a plane. Officials prevented Liu Hu, a journalist, from taking a flight because he was on a list of low-scored individuals. Ordered by a court to apologize for tweets he had posted, he was informed his apology was insincere. “I can’t buy property. My child can’t go to a private school,” Liu said. “You feel you’re being controlled by the list all the time.”

To compile its list, the government has begun to roll out its “Integrated Joint Operations Platform,” which aggregates data from surveillance cameras, identification checks, and “wifi sniffers” and predicts anti-party behavior. By 2020, security officials plan to have 600 million surveillance cameras installed. They are bragging that their facial-recognition software can scan the entire Chinese population in one second, and in April it picked out a suspect in a crowd of 60,000 at a pop concert in Nanchang.

While Xi is closing down public discussion, he is also walling off China’s economy from the world by increasing Beijing’s sway over markets, tightening capital controls, creating new state monopolies, enlarging subsidies for favored domestic businesses, and employing an array of tactics to cripple foreign competitors. He has reinvigorated central planning with state-centric initiatives such as the now-notorious Made in China 2025 program, which seeks Chinese dominance in 10 crucial industries.

Xi believes in Marxism, as seen in his actions and campaigns extolling the ideology. As Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania told The American Conservative, Xi has been “nourished by illusions about the future.”

And, although China’s leader is an ardent proponent of an ideology bearing the name of a 19th century European, he is sponsoring an assault on foreign influence, sometimes in tones reminiscent of the Maoist period. He may talk about pride in Chinese culture as a part of his Four Confidences campaign, but the effort looks rooted in insecurity as he finds danger in hip hop, Peppa Pig, and Santa Claus. Xi is xenophobic. His race-based Han nationalism is reminiscent of the dark times of the last century.


Fei-Ling Wang of the Georgia Institute of Technology has identified China’s three golden periods: the centuries just before the rule of Qin Shihuang, styled as China’s first emperor, reigning from 221 BC to 210 BC; the Song era, AD 960 to 1279; and the period beginning in the late 19th century. In all three, China was relatively open and, as Wang writes, “politically pluralistic.”

In those golden times, China was not dominated by the tianxia—“all under heaven”—system. In that system, Chinese emperors believed they ruled the entire world, near and far. Foreigners, considered barbarians, were viewed as subjects and were required to pay tribute to acknowledge their subordinate status.

The Georgia Institute of Technology’s Wang, in The China Order: Centralia, World Empire, and the Nature of Chinese Power, maintains that the tianxia system “has a record of suboptimal performance that features despotic governance, long stagnation of economy, suffocation of science and technology, retardation of spiritual pursuits, irrational allocation of resources, great depreciation of human dignity and life, low and declining living standards for the masses, and mass death and destruction periodically and frequently.”


Xi Jinping, for more than a decade, has been speaking as if he too were a tianxia emperor, invoking imperial themes. In the last two years, his language has become increasingly more explicit. “The Chinese have always held that the world is united and all under heaven are one family,” he declared in his 2017 New Year’s Message. Such views are echoed in state media, which fawns over Xi’s “unique views on the future development of mankind.”

In September 2017, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in Study Times, the Central Party School newspaper, wrote that Xi’s “thought on diplomacy”—a “thought” in Communist Party lingo is an important idea—has “made innovations on and transcended the traditional Western theories of international relations for the past 300 years.”

Minister Wang’s 300-year reference almost certainly pointed to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which recognized the sovereignty of individual states and is widely viewed as the basis of the current international system. Wang’s use of “transcended” indicates China’s ruler is contemplating a world without sovereign states other than China.

Xi’s tianxia mentality has consequences for America. “We think that President Xi will come out of this in a dominant position with incredible capacity to do good around the world,” said Mike Pompeo in October 2017 when he was CIA director. That assessment is surely optimistic.

Until recently most Americans had assumed China inevitably would become an open society and only needed encouragement. American policymakers in the early 1970s, therefore, made a grand wager that they could reform the Chinese system with generosity, that China’s leaders, in response, would see it to be in their interest to integrate themselves into the international system. As a result, the country would enmesh itself in the world’s network of treaties, conventions, rules, and norms. Therefore, American officials paved the way for China to join multilateral institutions and, more generally, the councils of power.

Washington’s guiding principle was articulated by Richard Nixon in his landmark 1967 Foreign Affairs article. “Taking the long view,” he wrote, “we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors.”

For three decades, Chinese officials worked inside that American-led network, making the U.S. wager look promising. A developing People’s Republic, inside the international system, looked to be more moderate. Its leaders said they would never seek hegemony or superpower status and, if they mentioned their emergence at all, and many in Beijing were clearly uncomfortable doing so, they used terms like “peaceful rise” or “peaceful development.” Inside the existing geopolitical order, China prospered.

Indeed, China made itself so prosperous and successful that Xi Jinping thought he could begin to do as he pleased externally, just as he was doing internally. His ambition now makes Washington’s wager look like a mistake of historic proportions, “the greatest foreign policy failure in all of American history” as Waldron told The American Conservative. And, as Nixon said toward the end of his life to journalist William Safire, “We may have created a Frankenstein.”

Indeed. Xi, fueled by near-absolute power at home and his tianxia mentality, is venturing toward lawlessness. No wonder his Beijing refused to accept the July 2016 decision by an arbitral panel convened to decide Philippines v. China, a case interpreting the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Manila brought the arbitration in 2013 after the Chinese seized Scarborough Shoal, a South China Sea feature long thought to be part of the Philippines.

In anticipation of losing, Beijing announced it would ignore the decision, and it continued its relentless verbal assault after the ruling, which went against China on almost all issues. Beijing’s reaction was accurately characterized as “non-acceptance, non-compliance and non-implementation.” With its brazen declarations before and after the ruling, Xi firmly put China outside the Westphalian system and the postwar rules-based order.

The collision between China and the international system was inevitable. Beijing’s positions on sovereignty issues are inconsistent with the UN convention and customary international law of the sea. Beijing’s “cow’s tongue,” the name informally given to about 85 percent of the South China Sea within nine or ten dashes on official maps, includes features claimed by five other states, impinges on the exclusive economic zone of a sixth, and abuts the zones of other nations in locations far from Chinese shores.

Worse, Chinese territorial designs, fueled by raw irredentism, are expanding. China’s officials are thinking, based on the tributary relations in imperial times, that they can lay a sovereignty claim to Japan’s Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu chain. Chinese foreign policy today, incredibly, looks like Chinese foreign policy in the imperial era.

Xi Jinping is not only taking on weak states; he is going after the world’s mightiest nation. In December 2016, China seized a U.S. Navy drone in international waters in the South China Sea. The site of the seizure, about 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay, was so close to the Philippine shore that it was beyond China’s expansive sovereignty claim. In short, there was absolutely no justification for the Chinese to grab the drone.

China’s ships had over a long period tailed the USNS Bowditch, an unarmed U.S. Navy reconnaissance vessel. The Bowditch crew, who at the time were trying to retrieve the drone, repeatedly radioed the Chinese sailors, who ignored calls and, within 500 yards of the American craft, seized it. The Chinese by radio then told the Bowditch they were keeping the drone.

The intentional taking of what the Defense Department termed a “sovereign immune vessel” of the United States was an act of piracy and therefore one of war. Yet the brazen, seemingly lawless action made perfect sense if Xi Jinping were, as he obviously thinks he should be, the ruler of a world where only China has sovereignty.  “A global tug of war between the U.S. and China is now fully on,” The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib wrote this May. “Indeed, it has become the dominant feature on the global landscape, and figures to stay that way for a long while.”

One can suggest, as does Seib, that this contest is a new Cold War. Seib correctly thinks China “seeks to create a new, alternate model.” Therefore, the competition between Washington and Beijing is more than, to borrow Condoleezza Rice’s phrase, “great-power politics, great-power rivalry, great-power conflict.” The struggle could determine the course of events for the remainder of the century.


There are now two different visions for ordering the world. China’s vision—actually Xi Jinping’s—is one where a Chinese ruler presides over all that is under heaven. China, therefore, is not “revisionist,” as many now call it. It is in fact revolutionary. Chinese leaders, for the first time since Mao, have returned to dreams of not only global domination but also a radical reordering of the world.

And that helps explain why Xi Jinping refused to be constrained by term limits over his least meaningful post, the presidency. Xi could not be a tianxia-like figure if he were term-limited. China’s emperors, of course, were the sons of heaven and ruled for life.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China and Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. He has given numerous briefings in Washington and other capitals and has frequently appeared on cable and other media outlets.