Political: From 05 March to at least 20 March, China will hold the First Session of the 13th National People’s Congress in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. The session acts like an opening of Parliament or State of the Union in some respects. At the Congress, individuals are elected to major state positions, but no significant changes are expected to the highest echelons in the party nor government. The session also sets federal budgets. China’s military budget, for example, has risen eight per cent to the equivalent of US$175bn. The Congress will consider recommendations made by the Chinese Communist Party regarding constitutional amendments for the first time since 2004. These will include writing “scientific outlook on development” and “Xi Jinping Thought” into the Constitution’s Preamble. Most notably, the Congress looks set to remove from the constitution the requirement that a President and Vice-President serve no more than two consecutive terms, with a vote to occur on 11 March. There are about 3,000 delegates to China’s National People’s Congress, and they can technically vote any way they want. But in its history, it has never vetoed a proposal by the Chinese Communist Party.
The constitutional amendment could mark the potential for President Xi to rule for life. Before this constitutional amendment was proposed, Xi was already the most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping. Xi had before now begun building a cult of personality with ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ enshrined in the Constitution alongside Mao Zedong. He looks set to become a leader with the political control to match Mao. The decision to remove term limits on the country’s leadership is hugely significant and should not be understated. The move marks a truly revolutionary step. Unlike other dictatorships, China has always viewed itself or has been viewed as a responsible autocracy, having solved the issue of regular and controlled transfers of power.
By setting a two-term limit on those at the top of the party, China has been able to prevent the presence of a strongman leader, a trend which has been a prevalent in many autocracies, leading to stunted development seen in places like Zimbabwe, Egypt, or Angola. The two-term limit was implemented in response to excesses of Chairman Mao, most notably in the Cultural Revolution and the “Great Leap Forward” where millions were persecuted, starved to death, and the country’s development was set back a generation. There are fears that should Xi possess the powers of Mao or a Chinese emperor, he may begin to indulge in the excesses of these regimes. Moreover, there are fears of what this move may have on the economy and transparency. For years, China has been keen to institutionalise the rule of law to help encourage foreign and domestic investment. It is unclear how the constitutional change may impact this. It seems obvious that state governments and state-owned industries will increasingly be reactive to central (i.e. President Xi’s) edicts and demands, rather than responding to the supply and demand triggers of the economy. This was also an apparent and obvious failure of Maoist policies.
President Xi has made anti-corruption a key component of his leadership. He vowed to fight ‘tigers’ and ‘flies’, high-ranking officials as well as lowly bureaucrats, in the anti-corruption drive. He has been accused of using this policy to suppress his political opponents and crush dissent. With him set to take a position as an outright leader, as opposed to a leader among equals, this trend is likely to continue or escalate, with his leadership following Chairman Mao’s in this respect. Expect further suppression of freedoms of speech and assembly after the constitutional amendments are made, especially in regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang, where there are active independence movements, and also online.
China has one of the highest number of internet users in the world. Chinese internet users are already limited in what they can view online, with Twitter and Facebook blocked by the ‘Great Firewall of China’ (though many users circumvent this by using proxy servers or virtual private networks). In the immediate aftermath of the announcement of the planned constitutional change, the intent of Chinese censors was obvious and potential future trends became clear to see. The word ‘emigrate’ spiked on the Chinese search engine Baidu and was subsequently banned. Words and phrases such as ‘constitution’, ‘ascend the throne’, and ‘Xi Jinping’ were also censored. Other terms used to circumvent the censors were also banned. These include ‘Winnie the Pooh’ (used since 2013 to mock President Xi’s appearance) and also references to Yuan Shikai, the first president of the Republic of China who proclaimed himself emperor.
Despite this move by Xi being seen as a move to crush dissent (which in many ways he has been able to do in the upper echelons in the Party), it may be viewed with disdain by the Party rank-and-file. Since the end of Maoism and the opening up period of the 1980s, Chinese Communist Party members had grown accustomed to being able to climb the party ladder to the leadership, thanks to the enforced handovers of power. It was the system of term limits which helped Xi Jinping take over from Hu Jintao in 2012 for example. The move may result in open revolt in the Party and a new period of power struggles, seen before in Chinese and Soviet history; there have already been murmurs of discontent in the Party.
Who or what will follow President Xi remains a pressing question. Xi is currently 64-years-old so one may expect him to rule China for some time yet. The advantage China has had over other autocracies such as Russia and their leader Vladimir Putin, is that the country would not face a power vacuum if the individual at the top went suddenly. If Putin were to die or become incapacitated in office, Russia would be plunged into uncertainty as competing forces attempted to seize power; potentially leading to a return to the instability of early 1990s. If Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao (President Xi’s two most recent predecessors) died while in the office, there would have been disruption in China, but it would not have been cataclysmic as Jiang and Hu were only positioned as leaders among equals. Should anything substantial befall Xi, considering how he is intertwined in the state and party apparatus, his fall may trigger a period of severe instability in China with serious domestic, international, and economic consequences.
The West had broadly hoped that as China became more economically prosperous, it would liberalise politically, but this has not been the case. In many respects, the reverse has been seen. Global history has shown that democracies are less likely to attack one another than autocracies or dictatorships. It was hoped that a democratic China would limit the potential for war in the Asia-Pacific. The constitutional amendment is likely to continue the more assertive foreign policy espoused by President Xi since he came to power in 2012. Undoubtedly, this change to the constitution will give Xi the political breathing room he seeks to turn the People’s Liberation Army into the dominant military force in Asia as a whole, but more specifically in the Asia-Pacific. China is keen to push the US out of its neighbourhood and to reduce its influence in the region. Beijing has set its eyes on Taiwan (which it views as a breakaway province), suppression of Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy, the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands of the East China Sea (disputed atolls between Japan and China), and increasing its presence in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes – the South China Sea (where China is building military installations in the face of a number of competing territorial claims).
The decision to make this constitutional amendment at this time may have come for a number of reasons. Due to the opaque nature of Chinese politics, ascertaining the primary reasons cannot be guaranteed. The decision may have been made as a means to centralise power. Over the past few years, cases of corruption and other crimes have been focused away from Beijing, in provincial headquarters (as highlighted by the fall of Bo Xilai as leader in Chongqing). The move may also be an attempt to reconsolidate power in the hands of “princelings” – the children of high Communist officials such as Xi – and away from newcomers in the party let in under Jiang Zemin.
President Xi may also feel like this is the right time to make changes due to distractions in the White House. President Trump is, in many ways, viewed as a gift by the Chinese. He has espoused an ‘America First’, isolationist foreign policy and protectionist trade policy. China was particularly thankful that Trump pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Despite all the benefits and drawbacks of the trade deal, the main aim of TPP was to form an anti-China (trade) alliance in the region. President Obama understood that pulling regional powers and influencers together economically, they would also come together diplomatically; Obama was laying a groundwork for a future coalition to combat an increasingly assertive China. The “Pivot to Asia” was not simply a talking point but a move to help ensure the United States’ continued global dominance. President Trump on the other hand has not been particularly successful in maintaining allies vital to dealing with a more assertive China.
As a number of commentators have noted, the present White House is a chaotic place. Since ascending to the presidency in January 2017, Trump has been through four Directors of Communications for example. White House staff have left or been forced out due to various scandals and disagreements. His son-in-law recently had his security clearance downgraded, and it appears that the Special Counsel investigation on Russian meddling in the 2016 election is bearing down on Donald Trump’s inner circle and Trump himself. The White House is also dealing with issues of gun control and new trade tariffs on steel and aluminium (against the doctrine of his own party). As the above suggests, the White House is perhaps both unable and unwilling to focus on the revolution which is taking place in China. China is almost certain to be the primary adversary to the United States in the 21st Century and its most significant adversary yet.
The planned constitutional amendment may in fact increase stability in the short-term by galvanising power and influence in a singular person. However, as noted above, the impact may be significant in the longer term and should be closely watched by those with business and relationships in China.
Despite the political changes in China, it remains a secure location to visit. There are low crime, terror, and civil unrest risks. Travellers should be prepared for cultural differences in China and the difficulties of road travel due to aggressive drivers and poor adherence to road signage.
Solace Global would not advise clients of the need to employ enhanced security measures when visiting China. However, to overcome language and cultural barriers and difficulties of travel, clients may wish to employ an airport meet and greet and a locally-vetted driver for the length of a visit. All travellers are advised to use travel-tracking technology with an intelligence feed for all travel in China. This should enable a traveller to be alerted of any security updates within their vicinity, and to update others of their movements in case of an emergency.