News analysis

With Xi's move to extend presidential term, China joins new era of strongmen

Xi Jinping presented China as a new model for the developing world - a thinly veiled argument that the United States and Europe were no longer as attractive as they once were.
Xi Jinping presented China as a new model for the developing world - a thinly veiled argument that the United States and Europe were no longer as attractive as they once were.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - There was a time, not so long ago, when a Chinese leader setting himself up as ruler for life would have stirred international condemnation for bucking the global trend toward greater democracy. Now, such an action seems fully in keeping with moves by many countries in the other direction.

The surprise disclosure on Sunday that the Communist Party was abolishing constitutional limits on presidential terms - effectively allowing President Xi Jinping to lead China indefinitely - was the latest and arguably most significant sign of the world's decisive tilt toward authoritarian governance which is often built on the highly personalised exercise of power, say experts.

The list includes Vladimir Putin of Russia, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, all of whom have abandoned most pretenses that they rule according to the people's will. Authoritarianism is also reappearing in places such as Hungary and Poland that barely a quarter century ago shook loose the shackles of Soviet oppression.

There are many reasons for such moves by Xi and others - including protecting their power and perks in an age of unrest, terrorism and war amplified by new technologies - but a significant one is that few countries have the standing or authority, morally or otherwise, to speak out - least of all, critics say, the United States.

"I mean, who is going to punish him internationally now?" asked Susan L. Shirk, the chair of the 21st Century China Program at the University of California, San Diego.

She and other experts described this "authoritarian reversion" as a global contagion that has undermined the abiding faith that forging liberal democracies and market economies was the surest path to prosperity and equality.

"Thirty years ago, with what Xi did, with what Erdogan has done, there would have been an outpouring of international concern: 'You're getting off the path,' and so on," said Michael A. McFaul, a political scientist and diplomat who, before serving as the US ambassador in Moscow from 2012 to 2014, wrote extensively on building democracies.

 
 

"Nobody is making that argument today," he added, "certainly not Trump."

The White House on Monday brushed off questions about Xi's move. "I believe that's a decision for China to make about what's best for their country," said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.

"But as you know, the president's talked about term limits in a number of capacities during the campaign. It's something that he supports here in the United States, but that's a decision that would be up to China."

Almost no one would have described China as genuinely democratic before the latest move, which was announced without fanfare on Sunday; the country remains a one-party state with extensive control over political, social and economic life.

Even so, Xi's gambit ended a period of collective and term-limited leadership begun by Jiang Zemin, who held the same post as Xi from 1993 to 2003, that many had hoped was leading China toward greater rule of law and openness.

Sunday's move confirms a growing view that those expectations were probably naive, some say.

"We're deluded in our conviction that everybody is going to become a democracy like us," Merriden Varrall, director of the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute in Australia, said.

Xi, who will be 69 when his second five-year term ends in 2023, is not simply following the example set by Putin or other leaders, she and other experts said. His motivations are unique to Chinese history and politics. Yet, they were deeply shaped by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and collapse of the Soviet Union two years later.

Those historical milestones ushered in an era of expanding political and economic freedoms. McFaul said that for nearly a quarter of a century autocratic leaders "had to play defence" against the democratising trend that seized the post-Cold War order.

Even the Russia that emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union adopted a democratic constitution and instituted free elections. Whatever the chaos of Boris Yeltsin's era in the 1990s, democracy was taking root when Putin came to power - in a relatively free and fair election, no less.

The rumination of Francis Fukuyama, the scholar, has come up repeatedly. In a famous essay titled The End Of History? (note the question mark), he argued that Western liberal democracy had become recognised as "the final form of human government."

"The end of history is no more," Brad W. Setser, a Treasury official during the Obama administration who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a message after news emerged of Xi's move.

In hindsight, Putin was the vanguard of what McFaul called the "illiberal international," a new version of the Communist International founded by Lenin to spread communism around the world.

Authoritarian leaders now act with greater impunity - or at least less worry about international isolation. Aspiring authoritarians such as Viktor Orban of Hungary in turn seem enticed by the kind of power Putin and Xi wield, untroubled by the need to compromise or consult or, in the case of corruption and cronyism, to answer for evidence of misrule and malfeasance.

President Donald Trump's critics say that while he may not yet have eroded democracy in the United States, his populist appeals and nativist policies, his palpable aversion to the media and traditional checks on power, and his stated admiration for some of the strongest of strongmen are cut from the same cloth.

The trend toward authoritarianism, while specific to each country's history, is rooted in insecurities and fears afflicting the world today: globalisation and rising inequality, the stunning and scary advances in technology, the disorienting chaos and extreme violence of civil wars like Syria's, separatism and terror.

The institutions of the post-Cold War - which reflected the bedrock values of Western liberalism - no longer seem able to cope. Countries that once were beacons for others are consumed by the same anxiety and weakness, and internal strife.

Putin has long cited such flaws to shore up his power at home; the campaign to interfere in the 2016 presidential election in the United States seemed intended, in the first place, to discredit US democracy still more.

"Liberal democracies in the United States and even in Europe no longer look like such an inspiring model for others to follow," said McFaul, whose book on his experience shepherding Russian policy in the Obama administration, From Cold War To Hot Peace: An American Ambassador In Putin's Russia, will be published in May.

From China's perspective, the end of the Cold War was hardly an inspiration, having led to the toppling of one-party dictatorships. The "contagion" of 1989, which saw popular protesters bring down communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe, infected China, too.

A few months before the Berlin Wall came down, Chinese students massing in Tiananmen Square posed what officials in Beijing viewed as an existential threat, a legacy that continues to colour everything the government does to this day.

"If anything gives Xi Jinping and the party nightmares, it is perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union," Varrall said, referring to the reforms the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, sought before the system unraveled.

Xi, as a result, believes that only stability can ensure his vision of China's revival and emergence as the world's power.

"He seems to genuinely believe that he's the only person who can achieve this vision," she said.

In last fall's Communist Party congress, Xi even presented China as a new model for the developing world - a thinly veiled argument that the United States and Europe were no longer as attractive as they once were.

The need for a strong grip appears to be a long-held conviction of Xi's. According to a 2009 diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks, an old associate told the US ambassador in Beijing at the time, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., that as a son of one of China's communist revolutionary leaders, Xi was an elitist who believed deeply in the unwavering authority of the party.

"One cannot entirely escape one's past," the associate said. "Xi does not want to."