Susan Shirk, a China exert who served under Bill Clinton, said: “What is going on here is that Xi Jinping is setting himself up to rule China as a strongman, a personalistic leader – I have no problem calling it a dictator – for life.” Wu’er Kaixi, a Chinese dissident in exile, added: “Now he has become this monster that we are about to see.” Some critical voices could be heard even from China. Li Datong, the outspoken former editor of the China Youth Daily, called on lawmakers in an open letter to vote down the proposal because it would “sow the seeds of chaos for China”. The two-term limit had been introduced, he added, because of “the enormous suffering of the Cultural Revolution” and that it was “one of the most important political legal legacies of Deng Xiaoping”.
Others were more cautious. For Shi Yinhong at Renmin University in Beijing: “It means that for a long time into the future, China will continue to move forwards according to Xi’s thoughts, his route, his guiding principles and his absolute leadership.” And Orville Schell, another American China expert, said this: “If you postulate that the world needs leadership, that America is in disarray and that Europe is a dish of loose sand, then maybe Chinese leadership has some virtues, particularly in areas like nuclear proliferation, climate change [and] pandemics. Whatever you may think of his authoritarian kind of leadership, at least he can lead.”
More positive even were the assessments of some Western economists who clearly don’t mind a bit of authoritarianism. For Robert Carnell, chief Asia economist with the ING Bank, Xi’s move provides some upsides “from an investment perspective” as it would enhance “China’s ability to get things done”. The transition into a consumer economy and Xi’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative, he said, were “more likely to be successful with a strong and steady leadership.” And similarly Raymond Yeung, chief Greater China economist at the Australian ANZ Bank, predicted increased policy stability, which in turn would be positive for China’s long-term economic reforms. “From an academic perspective, it will help reduce an unnecessary economic cycle adjustment triggered by the political changes and ease economic volatility.”
Speculation about the motives behind this initiative and it implications is thus rife, though largely unsupported by factual evidence. We may want to ask not only why Xi himself might want this enhanced position, but why the members of the Central Committee would agree to it. The answer may be that they are foreseeing a period of global instability that can be managed only by a strongman, strong-hand politics. The world-wide turn to authoritarian and personal rule – so noticeable, of course, also in Trump’s America – may reflect the same thought. Not a good prospect for liberal democracies.