Xi’s dangerous power trip as chairman of everything

A third term in office for China’s ‘Red Emperor’ would be a ‘tragic mistake’ and a perilous precedent

President Xi Jinping is the ultimate control freak in a Communist Party consumed by secrecy. China’s modern-era “chairman of everything” not only rules the CCP as general secretary but also has an iron grip on the country’s armed forces.

His doctrine, known as “Xi’s Thought,” is at the heart of the Party and is taught in primary schools, studied in universities and analyzed in the upper echelons of government.

Obedience and loyalty are taken for granted and are defined in his economic and military policies. Yet there have been murmurs and rumors ahead of the 20th National Congress, and an unprecedented third term in office.

Highlighted by the gray flicks in his hair, Comrade Xi is getting old and more autocratic as tensions rise between China and the alliance of democracies forged by the United States.

At 69, he should have been consigned to the appendix of history under Party retirement rules. Instead, he refuses to budge, hooked on “political power” and dizzy with dreams about “China’s Century.”

“Xi’s extraordinary power trip is not good for China’s future,” Doug Bandow, of the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to the late President Ronald Reagan, said.

“Like Mao [Zedong], Xi has become a Red Emperor, though with even more people, 1.4 billion, subject to his every whim,” he wrote in a commentary for the Washington-based think tank.

Global superpower

“And, like Mao, he is surrounded by sycophants, suspicious of criticism, protected by enforcers, shielded from reality, and absolved from accountability,” Bandow added.

Yet barring a miracle, Xi will continue at the helm of a global superpower obsessed with his vision of “national security.”

Those two words run through the bloodstream of China’s body politic like an ideological virus. They absorb and infect domestic policy through rhetorical dogma and make a mockery of Beijing’s approach to international diplomacy. 

Even an economy wrecked by Xi’s “zero-Covid” strategy bends to his will with mass lockdowns, despite the chaos and misery it has inflicted on tens of millions of Chinese citizens. 

Local government debt is becoming unsustainable. Photo: Shutterstock

“Xi [has] turned national security into a key paradigm that permeates all aspects of China’s governance. His expanding comprehensive national security concept now comprises 16 types of security,” a major report released last month by the Mercator Institute for China Studies revealed.

“The result is a state of hyper-vigilance with wide-reaching effects on state-society relations, China’s economic growth model and how the leadership enforces its interests abroad,” MERICS authors Katja Drinhausen and Helena Legarda pointed out.

But the shockwaves from Xi’s state-run surveillance networks have come at an economic cost.

Local government debt is becoming unsustainable while “China’s property crash” resembles “a slow-motion financial crisis.” Instability in the regional banking sector has only exacerbated the turmoil along with rising unemployment and a dramatic slowdown in consumer spending.

Rumblings on the Twitter-like Weibo social media site have been silenced to make sure nothing overshadows Xi’s party with the Party, which starts later this week.

Propaganda blitz

“Mass distribution of Beijing-backed content via mainstream media, intimidation of outlets that publish opinions disfavored by the Chinese government, and the use of cyberbullying are among the tactics that have been employed since 2019,” a report by Freedom House, a think tank based in Washington, stated.

Deeply rooted in the Party propaganda blitz is the cult of Xi and his version of the “China Miracle.” Myth merges with a moribund vision of the rest of the world and, in particular, the great democratic states. Fiction becomes fact and fact becomes fiction.

Yet this narrative cannot hide the strategic blunders of Xi’s reign and the dangers that lie ahead.

“Ten years is always enough. Even a first-rate leader decays after that long in office. One with unchallengeable power tends to decay more quickly,” economics commentator Martin Wolf wrote in the Financial Times.

“Surrounded by people he has chosen and protective of the legacy he has created, the despot will become increasingly isolated and defensive, even paranoid,” he said, adding that a third term in office would be a “tragic mistake.”

China’s PLA navy in the South China Sea. Photo: PLA Navy

The signs of paranoia are already appearing without turning to Chinese tea leaves for a glimpse of the future. Under Xi’s leadership, the world’s second-largest economy has launched a massive program of military spending.

Sandbanks have been turned into illegal fortresses in the South China Sea as Beijing seeks to dominate one of the most crucial maritime superhighways in the world.   

Up to US$3 trillion of trade traverses through the 1.3 million-square-mile waters and Xi claims nearly every inch as China’s “sovereign territory.” Top of his agenda is the resource-rich areas surrounding Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Nearer to home, Hong Kong’s “One Country, Two Systems” model has been ripped up after protests for greater political freedom in the city were crushed in 2020. Leading democracy activists were quickly rounded up and jailed under a catch-all National Security Law imposed by Beijing.

The US and its allies were outraged but Xi just ignored them.

‘Economic shock’

Next on the list is Taiwan, one of the most vibrant democracies in the world and a high-tech hub of innovation. Roughly 160 kilometers or 100 miles from the mainland, China considers the island a “renegade province” even though the Communist Party’s claim has no historical precedent.

“Allowing China to capture the island would have massive ramifications: every American ally and partner would reconsider its security dependence on the United States and opt for either appeasement of China or some form of strategic autonomy, which would likely involve obtaining nuclear weapons,” Richard Haass, of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said.

“A conflict over Taiwan would also lead to a profound global economic shock owing to Taiwan’s dominant role in manufacturing advanced semiconductors,” he wrote in an analysis, entitled The Dangerous Decade, for Foreign Affairs.

Second-guessing a “despot” is fraught with risks when the ideology of destiny replaces diplomacy. Still, perhaps, Henry Gao, of the Singapore Management University, captured the mood just right in a tweet.

“[Xi] was called China’s Gorbachev before his first term; China’s Brezhnev in his first term; China’s Stalin in his second term … I wonder what people will call him as he begins his third term,” he asked.

Whatever the answer, there are dark days ahead with the chairman of everything perpetually ensconced in China’s seat of power, brooding over his thoughts.