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The One-Man state

By Silvia Martelli

The year 2023 was supposed to mark the end of Xi Jinping’s second presidential term, and so of his overly extended, highly toxic power grab over China. It should have been the time to officially say goodbye to the President of China and leader of the ruling Communist Party, welcoming the next one.

Some, or better many, myself included, were eagerly waiting for it, in the utopian hope of the flourishment of democracy within the country – so far made indisputably impossible by President Xi. Then, on February 25th came the dreadful, unexpected announcement that the presidency term limits had been scratched by the Communist Party itself. The decision has cleared the way for Xi to stay in power for as long as his party wants to keep him there, potentially giving him a lifetime to boost his vision of China as a rejuvenated, global superpower with a “world-class” military.

The latest amendment to the Chinese constitution, despite being a shocking change, is only another sign of Xi’s ongoing consolidation of power, which now outgrows by far that of previous Communist leader Mao Zedong.

It should come as no surprise as Xi has always made his insatiable hunger for power very clear, utterly rejecting any policy that could weaken his party and portraying himself not only as modern China’s third great leader, but also as the heir to a glorious Communist tradition that goes back to Russia’s Bolsheviks.

As such, when his first term in office ended last year, he gave a speech of 3.5 hours hinting that he is now more ambitious than ever, outlining all the party’s accomplishment over the previous five years as well as the aspirations for those to come.

In addition to his multiple references to China’s already-achieved ‘great power’ status, he heralded the dawn of a ‘new era’, advocating for the transformation of the country into an even more powerful world leader in economic, political, environmental and military issues – what he has hailed as the ‘China Dream’.

Despite Xi’s desperate efforts to paint China as a ‘responsible global power’ in shared dangers such as climate change, the international sphere is well aware of the many issues present at stake.

Among them, it is extremely worrying to acknowledge that the leader still has no intention to move towards a conventional market economy, in spite of his declared ambition to make the economy more prosperous. Now that Xi can rule indefinitely, Chinese economy could suffer badly from the extensive presence of the government, which distorts prices. It is even more worrying to witness Xi’s commitment to ramp up domestic repression, one of the key features of his first mandate.

Under Xi, Chinese authorities have indeed cracked down hard on free expression, arresting multiple dissidents and human rights lawyers, and extensively applying censorship. This is especially the case with the Internet, where a whole ‘range of erroneous viewpoints’ spread and ‘must be resisted’, according to Xi – an unacceptable ethos in a digitalized era.

An example of the many restrictions imposed is the (unsurprising) immediate repression of any opposing reaction posted on the Internet regarding the abolishment of presidential term limits.

None of these reactions made it to the mainstream media either, which instead swung into their propaganda mode, in perfect accordance with their vital function as political tools to secure and back Xi’s power. Media have also become key in the cult of his image as a warm character

familiar with the struggle of the people – irony for a man who intimidates his peers with long silences and hardly ever smiles.

Now that Xi can possibly rule for life, and keep pursuing his authoritarian policies, there will most likely be calamitous consequences for the country as a whole, with Chinese history already offering invaluable lessons about the dangers of one-man rule. In 1982, term limits were established for a very valid reason: avoiding the tumult that single authoritarian leaders can create, as in the case of Mao Zedong.

The reverse of this decision has not been justified particularly extensively, if not that it seems a natural progression of Xi’s actions over the past years – based upon his conviction that no one else could ever achieve his own vision of a Great China.

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