politics

World Braces for More Rule-Bending by China’s Xi

Updated on
  • China under Xi has reassured support for Western institutions
  • Communist Party seeking to break norms on presidential terms
Nick Bennenbroek of Wells Fargo and Paul Richards of Medley Global Advisors discuss the future of China under Xi.

Xi Jinping’s decision to cast aside China’s presidential term limits is stoking concern he also intends to shun international rules on trade and finance, even as he champions them on the world stage.

Xi Jinping

Photographer: Feng Li/Pool via Getty Images

The Communist Party’s bid to repeal the constitutional prohibition enacted after the turbulent Mao Zedong era -- allowing Xi to stay on indefinitely -- is only the latest domestic standard discarded by the president. Since coming to power in 2012, he’s jailed once-untouchable retirees of the country’s top political body, declined to name a successor and created a series of party panels to take over government policy making.

Xi has demonstrated a similar willingness to challenge the rules overseas, despite casting himself as a defender of the post-World War II order in speeches to United Nations diplomats and Davos billionaires. Countries have accused Beijing of putting an economic embargo on South Korea, meddling in Australian politics and ignoring an international tribunal’s ruling against Chinese claims to the disputed South China Sea.

Such concerns prompted the Trump administration in December to brand China a “revisionist power” that threatens U.S. economic strength and national security by seeking to reshape the global order. Repealing term limits means Xi’s policies are more likely to endure past 2023, when his second five-year term as president would be expected to end.

Read more: A QuickTake Explainer on Xi Jinping

“This move will only serve to heighten concern about how China seeks to leverage its growing global footprint,” said Andrew Polk, co-founder of research firm Trivium China in Beijing. “The way China presents itself to the world is increasingly at odds with the facts on the ground.”

Xi’s tenure has been defined by a renewed emphasis on party orthodoxy and intense campaigns to reign in the corruption that flourished under his predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, as well as curbs on dissent. Xi has rounded up rights lawyers, punished more than 1.5 million party cadres and blocked most of the largest foreign internet and social media companies.

Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao, and Jiang Zemin.

Photographer: Feng Li/Getty Images

Long before the term limits move, Xi broke an unwritten rule against prosecuting retired top leaders by jailing former security chief Zhou Yongkang for life in June 2015. His creation of more than 10 party policy-making bodies has reversed efforts to separate party and government following the chaos of the Mao era.

Xi -- now commanding the world’s second-largest economy and one of its most powerful militaries -- has extended that assertive approach into areas where his predecessors had shown greater deference to foreign views.

Read more: Xi’s the Big New Key-Person Risk for Emerging Markets: Gadfly

In July, China’s foreign ministry declared the Sino-British Joint Declaration -- the 1985 treaty guaranteeing political autonomy for the former British colony of Hong Kong -- a “historical document” that “no longer has any practical significance.” In 2016, a former top Chinese diplomat similarly dismissed as no more than “waste paper” an international tribunal’s ruling against the country’s claims to much of the South China Sea.

Jerome Cohen, a professor at New York University’s School of Law who has been studying China since the 1960s, said Xi’s effort to dispense with term limits would further “hinder China’s efforts to be respected for ‘soft power,’ as well as military and economic prowess.”

“Xi’s move will have a profound effect on world order,” Cohen wrote. “It will enable him to move more boldly and increases the risk of his acting arbitrarily and perhaps mistakenly in international relations.”

Asked about the term-limit repeal, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the decision was “China’s to make,” and added that President Donald Trump supports presidential term limits for the U.S.

Staying on would give Xi the chance to advance a 30-year plan to complete China’s return to great-power status by the mid-century mark, when he’ll be in his 90s. Xi’s vision includes two programs that have fueled concerns about China’s clout: a sweeping military modernization drive and a global trade-and-infrastructure program called the Belt and Road Initiative.

Xi Jinping reviews PLA troops in Hong Kong in June 2017.

Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg

China’s growing military strength is fueling defense spending increases from Japan to India, while Taiwan has warned that expanded People’s Liberation Army patrols risk destabilizing the region. Australia, meanwhile, has introduced legislation to limit political meddling by China and other foreign powers and expressed skepticism about the need for the Belt and Road projects.

Alicia Garcia Herrero, Natixis’s chief economist for the Asia-Pacific region, said China’s size and historical influence made others in the region nervous about any attempt to change the rules.

“Xi’s ambition is a double-edged sword,” Herrero said. “It benefits China as there is clear leadership at a time in which the world is transitioning towards a less rule-based reality,” she said. “On the other, it cannot but raise suspicion and probably even more than just suspicion but outright fear.”

(Adds White House comment in 12 paragraph.)
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