Assuming he will be fit for office until he is 80, the new presidency rule leaves 65-year old Xi with a total of 15 complete years to oversee the fruition of his policy. The acid test will, however, come with the application of the Thought
At the height of the Northern Ireland troubles in the early 1970s, I asked my Catholic cab driver about his thoughts. Paddy’s response was as direct as it was apolitical — just like the response of any little man can be wherever he may be found in the world. “You know, I don’t mind who is in the charge so long as I am allowed to live in peace and provide for my family,” he said with disconcerting candidness. A universal wish that belongs to the average resident on planet Earth, including the Chinese.
Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects People’s Liberation Army troops at the PLA’s Hong Kong garrison
Back in 1982, a two-term presidency limit was introduced in the Chinese constitution by arch-reformer Deng Xiaoping in order to avoid the horrors of Mao Zedong’s three decades (1943-1976) at the helm of the country.
However on 11 March 2018, the National People’s Congress (NPC) voted to remove this limit. This leaves the path clear for the current President Xi Jinping, who has been in the job since 2013, to stand for re-election every five years. Thus, whilst the rest of the world is still trying to impose the two-term mandate for PMs/Presidents, China has seemingly regressed.
Simultaneously the NPC voted to include Xi’s political doctrine entitled “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.” The Thought consists of 14 basic policy measures that include (i) science-based green development (who could possibly argue with that?), and (ii) improving party discipline in the Communist Party of China (basically meaning getting rid of corruption; bravo!).
“Similarities with Mao are somewhat overplayed. It is true that Xi is in agreement with Mao in the belief that power needs to be concentrated in the right hand in order to lead the country in the new era; and that hand obviously belongs to him! This kind of dogmatic belief can, but not necessarily, lead to excesses. But unlike Mao, Xi has always sought the tacit support of the Chinese people. Also half a century has elapsed since Mao, and Chinese society has moved on and become more pluralistic and less subservient than the homogeneous, illiterate and grateful masses that he led during the Long March…”
Assuming he will be fit for office until he is 80, the new presidency rule leaves 65-year old Xi with a total of 15 complete years to oversee the fruition of his policy. So really nothing to fear so far. The acid test will, however, come with the application of the Thought when sheer enthusiasm may result in repression that is so common to one-man grip on the levers of power.
As expected, the amendments have met with the usual chorus of condemnation in the West. It is presumed that they will lead to dictatorship. But herein lies the utter hypocrisy of it all because, whilst condemning some, it tacitly encourages and applauds other dictatorships. I am afraid pick-and-choose does not really sit too well with moral rectitude.
Remember how everyone cried when Nelson Mandela voluntarily passed on the presidential mantle to his successor, wishing he would continue indefinitely. Why was there this belief that Mandela would not eventually turn into a monstrous dictator like most African leaders? Much of the Middle East is governed by what is euphemistically called strong men. From Bahrain to Qatar, from Syria to Saudi Arabia, they all fall into this category, but no one seems to have the slightest qualms in dealing with these heads of state.
Does the sweet smell of petrol really act as an antidote to the awful stench of human rights violations that include the stoning to death of women? One is left to wonder.
On the other hand, Singapore’s meteoric rise from a backwater island into today’s Asian Tiger was achieved under the steely hand of Lee Kuan Yew. Even today the Tiger’s socio-economic progress is anchored in what Lord Hailsham might call an “elective dictatorship”, but it is still praised and held as a role model around the world.
So why this outcry at the prospect of Xi ruling over China for another 15 years. Especially with the aim of implementing his Thought which contains nothing untoward; only the advancement and well-being of the country and its people? (vide footnote).
Because having lived through the Cultural Revolution under Mao, it is feared that the country may be visited by ghosts from the 1943-1976 period when power was concentrated in the hands of just one man. There is concern that the re-concentration of power in one man may result in a repeat of some of the horrors of the Mao era.
But then similarities with Mao are somewhat overplayed. It is true that Xi is in agreement with Mao in the belief that power needs to be concentrated in the right hand in order to lead the country in the new era; and that hand obviously belongs to him! This kind of dogmatic belief can, but not necessarily, lead to excesses. But unlike Mao, Xi has always sought the tacit support of the Chinese people.
Also half a century has elapsed since Mao, and Chinese society has moved on and become more pluralistic and less subservient than the homogeneous, illiterate and grateful masses that he led during the Long March. Furthermore the world has shrunk to usher in the globalized era: nations can no longer remain as aloof and oblivious to world opinion.
In their enthusiasm to install democracy throughout the world, the West often forget that it took them 400 years to build the kind of (highly commendable) liberal democracy they enjoy today. Why Spain only became a democracy in 1977 following the death of General Franco. And East European democracy is still in the delivery room.
Democracy, it must be remembered, is a process which can take centuries. Generally societies start as small groupings led by one strong man (no apologies to the bra-burning brigade here!), usually a tribal or feudal lord. Slowly a nation of collaborative tribes emerges with the feudal lords joining forces to form alliances against real or perceived enemies, under the aegis of a strong man — an autocracy/monarchy. Thereafter it takes a long time for democracy to emerge.
Recent history teaches us that there is no quick copy & paste way to install a democracy anywhere in the world. Notice the failure rate among young nations where this has been tried. Whether it’s Iraq, Libya or Pakistan or much of Africa, it has failed to take root — often leaving mayhem in its wake. The world must simply learn to allow Time to take its time.
In Moa’s time, news — when it did come out — was not only old but also rather sparse. He was the leader of a nation of uneducated peasants. Today the people are educated and, no matter how the authorities may try to conceal the truth, social media is there to fill the gap. News that took days/weeks to trickle out can be flashed across the globe in seconds at the click of a mouse. Besides the number of intellectuals at home, there are many scholars and influential individuals among the Chinese diaspora.
More importantly perhaps in the globalized world where China will need to continue trading (read export) with the wide world to achieve the socio-economic success Xi’s Thought aims at, good governance is a sine qua non. Whilst a thin possibility does exist, it is doubtful whether events such as Tiananmen Square 1989 will be repeated – and tolerated today! A trade embargo of even 10-20% will be hard to bear; and the ensuing economic downturn could easily spark off widespread civil unrest.
However visions of a pre-independence conciliatory Mugabe-1970 keeps coming back! Sadly human history is replete with examples of well-intentioned men like him who have turned into nightmarish boors once they have achieved power, wishing to hang on well beyond their “sell-by date”.
Whether Xi Jinping turns out to be one of these horrors, or a latter-day Lee Kuan Yew to China, only time will tell. But basing on his track record so far, it would be churlish to deny him his turn on mere supposition. Surely he deserves the benefit of the doubt to deliver his Magnum Opus for the benefit of the people of China. In any case the NPC has given its verdict, and the world must adjust to live with it.
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The 14 principles of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’
- Ensuring Communist Party of China leadership over all forms of work in China.
- The Communist Party of China should take a people-centric approach for the public interest.
- The continuation of “comprehensive deepening of reforms”.
- Adopting new science-based ideas for “innovative, coordinated, green, open and shared development”.
- Following “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” with “people as the masters of the country”.
- Governing China with the rule of law.
- “Practise Socialist Core Values”, including Marxism, communism and “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
- “Improving people’s livelihood and well-being is the primary goal of development”.
- Coexist well with nature with “energy conservation and environmental protection” policies and “contribute to global ecological safety”.
- Strengthen national security.
- The Communist Party of China should have “absolute leadership over” China’s People’s Liberation Army.
- Promoting the one country, two systems system for Hong Kong and Macau with a future of “complete national reunification”; and to follow the One-China policy and 1992 Consensus for Taiwan.
- Establish a common destiny between Chinese people and other people around the world with a “peaceful international environment”.
- Improve party discipline in the Communist Party of China.
* Published in print edition on 30 March 2018