How must India deal with an all-powerful Xi Jinping?

Prof. Alka Acharya, Honorary Fellow, ICS & Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

The question that had been the cause of much speculation and discussion since the 19th Communist Party Congress last October — ‘After Xi Jinping, Who?’ — has now seemingly been answered. Xi Jinping himself!

In fact, Xi’s continuation in power beyond two terms was widely anticipated when, as had been the practice since the political and administrative reforms had been introduced by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, no successor was announced at the end of the 19th Chinese Communist Party congress.

Xi now proposes to overturn the practice, which had limited the top leader to two consecutive terms in office — and this will now be enshrined in the state constitution of the People’s Republic of China.

While it does appear that Xi is changing the game considerably, it is also apparent that this decision is based on a sort of consensus, at least among the top leadership.

It would be a mistake to assume that we are looking at a leader who has no challengers or questioners.

The Second Party Plenum (which normally meets up just ahead of the annual National People’s Congress which opens in Beijing on March 5) was held instead in mid-January 2018 to discuss the proposed amendments — and the decisions were announced just a week before the NPC.

Clearly, that does not give much time to such opposition as exists, to challenge these changes. That Xi has managed to over-ride such objections as may have been raised, points to a qualitative strengthening of his power — but it also underscores the fact that we are not looking at a complete one-man show or that the factions within the party have all been effectively neutralised.

Such comparisons as are being made with Mao are thus also quite off the mark — the PRC today is not the China of yore.

It must also not be overlooked that there are some other very important amendments which cumulatively point to a period of some significant political changes. These are, expectedly, the inclusion of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ in the state constitution (which had been declared at the end of the 19th party congress in October), as also some of the new phrases such as ‘China Dream’ and ‘Great National Rejuvenation’.

Interestingly, it has also been announced that Xi Jinping’s predecessor Hu Jintao’s contribution, ‘Scientific Outlook on Development’ will also be added in the constitution. This is a useful indicator of the jockeying that is underway among the various factions within the Communist Party of China.

The proposal to bring in Wang Qishan, a close confidant of Xi Jinping, who had led the anti-corruption campaign in coordination with Xi, as vice-president, despite the fact that he is past the age limit for these statutory posts, is also a pointer to Xi’s moves to now secure his control over State institutions and structures.

While the limits on the terms of the president and vice-president have been removed, a two-year term has been stipulated for the director of the National Supervision Commission, a body that will be in charge of the anti-corruption campaign.

Thus, with these constitutional amendments, Xi appears well placed to consolidate the consensus on these matters and ensure that he has the full backing of the party, as the PRC begins the second term under the 19th Congress leadership.

It is the Chinese citizens who should be more concerned about Xi Jinping’s power consolidation.

In the Chinese media, Xi is projected not as any ordinary leader — lingdao — but has established his reputation as the lingxiu, a spiritual/philosophical guide. (Not just a neta but a margadarshak.)

Most people in China would also agree that under Xi’s strong leadership, China would now decisively step into a global leadership role and lead China towards acquiring its rightful status as a global power.

Xi has also now emerged as a champion fighter against corruption; has authored two huge tomes on governance and has made it clear that he intends to decisively pilot the fifth generation of economic reforms — the rebalancing of the economy — which would be potentially the most challenging task ahead and it will definitely require a strong hand at the helm.

Undoubtedly, all these changes would have major implications for further political reforms. In the near-obsessive focus outside China on Xi Jinping, particularly in the Western media, the strength of the different factions — especially the Jiang Zemin faction and its resistance to the Xi Jinping-led changes — are generally glossed over.

Equally, it is overlooked that another significant amendment proposed in the Second Plenum is a change in the phrase ‘Chinese socialist rule’ by law to ‘Chinese socialist rule of law.

Thus the contentions and debates as also the State-society interface on questions of freedom and dissent and their justiciability, are also likely to see significant developments within China.

As to the impact of this on India, the question we need to ask is whether India is worried about a, b, or Xi as far as China is concerned, or whether we are worried about China?

Since the last three decades, we have not seen any major or dramatic differences within the Chinese Communist Party (or in the Chinese government, for that matter) when it comes to dealing with India. Whether it is Xi or anyone else, the approach will remain similar.

The boundary dispute notwithstanding, China has always had leaders who have been, on the whole, positively disposed towards India.

The last few years have seen a plateauing of the momentum in India-China relations, but there are some indications that a rethink of sorts is underway in India as well.

Given the centrality of the Chinese Communist Party, we need to strengthen the linkages with the crucial personalities in the highest echelons of the Communist party and political leadership.

It is not that we lack the connections — in fact with some such as Politburo member Yang Jiechi, we have a history of friendly and amicable exchanges. The critical question is how do we change the gears for productively engaging with a China that that has rapidly — and comprehensively — forged ahead of India.

This article was originally published as ‘How India must deal with the all-powerful Xi Jinping‘,, 27 February 2018.

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