Term Limits Off for Xi: Some Reflections for India

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

When China’s National People’s Congress – the rough equivalent of India’s Lok Sabha, but toothless – meets in the coming week it has to deal with a proposal by the ruling Communist Party of China to amend the state constitution to remove term limits for the President of the state. Coming from where it does, this is pretty much a direct order to the NPC to remove the term limits.

Removing term limits for the President, imposed in 1982, is a roundabout way of saying that the norm of two terms for the CPC General Secretary – Xi’s more powerful avatar – too, is not set in stone.

Indeed, term limits were imposed in the first place to signal to the Party that no leader should be able to continue indefinitely in power as Mao had much to the detriment of China and its people. Now, Xi appears to be seeking the removal of term limits with the opposite message – that China requires a strong leader capable of cleaning up corruption, modernizing the military, stabilizing the economy and standing up to aggressive neighbours and especially, to the United States.

Xi has sold his work in this regard over the five years of his first term as General Secretary as having been fairly successful. But since there is much still to do, the CPC seems to suggest he cannot be inconvenienced by such things as term limits. Surely, the Chinese people understand the great and historic moment of opportunity that they have to make China great again – under Xi’s direction, of course?

Does all of this sound a little familiar? The ‘again’ in US President Donald Trump’s ‘Make America great again’ is based on a rather short period of national existence. Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’ and campaign to make China great again is based on a much longer history, of course. But also in many ways, an imagined, often false, history which is why large numbers of Chinese have been so susceptible – with active encouragement from Xi and CPC propaganda – to hypernationalism and irredentism and appear to believe that they can achieve their goals while rubbing every one of their neighbours the wrong way.

But Indians must see that there is more that is familiar in Xi’s pronouncements and ambitions?

How about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for two terms for the BJP at the centre right from the get-go? His call to the electorate for ridding the country altogether of the only other national-level political party? Modi and Xi pretty much read from the same song-sheet in their calls to fight corruption, to strengthen the military, to revive the economy and to improve the status of their country in international politics.

Somewhere along the way though, the Indian Prime Minister appears to have forgotten the part about walking the talk. It helps of course, that the CPC has control over the levers – and the resources – of the Chinese economy. In India, political parties, in power or outside, probably have to work a little harder.

While so far, Xi’s policies have targeted sections of the Chinese population – the corrupt, the dissidents, the ethnic minorities – with the latest announcement, potentially all Chinese are affected. Mao’s excesses and Deng Xiaoping’s influence behind the scenes are not such distant memories for the Chinese population that they will not have apprehensions about Xi’s seeking power potentially for life.

And like in India, so also in China. Citizens are not easily swayed by the numbers of corrupt officials arrested, believing there is much targeting on the basis of factional strife and that some individuals and their families are untouchable. Xi’s latest move has not gone down well with Chinese citizens either, and the Party censors have had a hard time trying to clean up criticism on social media.

From a foreign policy point of view, Xi’s consolidation of power actually does not change much. In fact, foreign policy has helped strengthen Xi in his domestic politics almost as much as domestic politics has helped weaken current US foreign policy. While China has a long way to go to effectively challenge American power around the world, Xi’s opportunism where the US has dithered – declaring China to be a supporter and leader of globalization and of climate change mitigation efforts, for example – does help undermine American image abroad and its confidence within.

In this respect, China under Xi is a much more cagey and powerful operator than Russia’s Vladimir Putin has been or will ever be. Putin is effectively the head of a declining power and his country’s aggressiveness is more akin to the raging against the dying of the light than anything sustainable over the long term.

China’s economy as troubled as it might be is still quite strong and chugging along while its military is still in the process of finding its feet for the needs of the 21st century rather than being patched up with band-aid. Xi’s strengthening himself at the helm also allows economic and military reforms to be carried out without fear of disruption or bowing to exigencies due to short-term pain.

In the case of India, however, political exigency is exactly what marks the process of economic reform and military restructuring and modernization. Modi’s strength in Parliament has not necessarily concentrated his mind on the need for long-term reforms as much as it has on the need to pick off remaining political opponents. While there has been pain, the jury is still out on whether anything worthwhile has been achieved.

India will need reforms in governance that go beyond ensuring that its civil servants punch the clock and changes to civil-military relations that go beyond letting generals mouth off where it is not their business to.

It is not Xi’s unshackled power or its imitation in India that will be responsible for daylight between China’s and India’s growth stories or their status in the world. It is the search for easy fixes and the short-termism of India’s politicians, and its citizens.

This article was originally published as ‘Xi as Prez for life: As China gets assertive, India must focus on reforms’, Business Standard, 6 March 2018.

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