OPINION: Taiwan Can Breathe Easier after Xi's Power Play

OPINION: Taiwan Can Breathe Easier after Xi's Power Play
Photo credit: Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

Xi Jinping may well plan to step aside as president in 2023, but he will maintain power behind the scenes anyway.

By Mark Wenyi Lai

While Premier William Lai (賴清德) and his cabinet ministers have been bogged down here in Taiwan by the toilet paper price hike “crisis” and resulting panic buying, their cross-Strait counterparts have been executing a grand political succession – or, more accurately, continuation. And the structural change to Beijing leadership that this involves may mean something quite different for Taiwan than most reports are suggesting.

It started on Feb. 25, when China’s state-run Xinhua news agency announced that the government was planning a constitutional amendment to abolish the presidential two-term limit. The reaction was predictably swift. Inside China, most news outlets toed the party line, with hurrahs for the extension of Xi’s “strong,” “stable,” and “superb” leadership beyond 2023. This support was echoed in the display of Xi’s slogans and portraits in the public sphere, stirring a sense of déjà vu of the Mao Zedong years. Outside China, a near-unanimous voice of criticism spoke out across newspapers globally, decrying what they described as the failure of the Chinese political system, the danger of a new Chinese emperor, and the frustration of Western leaders with an overconfident Xi.

“The purpose of the proposed constitutional amendment is to send a signal that he intends to maintain stability. Xi will surely remain in power after 2023, just not as president.”

Having researched and taught Chinese politics, particularly its succession mechanism, for more than a decade, I can’t help but wonder about some of the intriguing questions arising from this development.

Firstly, Xi’s true power does not come from the office of president, so why does this amendment pave the road for his supremacy in Zhongnanhai [the seat of CCP power in Beijing]? Throughout Mao’s reign from 1949 until his death in 1976, he served as president for only five years. Deng Xiaoping was the paramount leader from 1978 to 1997, during which at no point he served as president. Their real power came from either or both the positions of general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission. There is simply no term limit for these jobs; Mao was general secretary for 31 years and Deng controlled the commission for 14 years. Despite the complexity of Chinese politics, one thing for certain is that Xi doesn’t need this constitutional amendment to ensure or prolong his power. We can therefore assume that lifting the two-term limit is partly a test of public reaction and, accordingly, that Xi and his people are not as sure about their “emperorship” plan as we may otherwise assume.

Secondly, why does Xi need to test anything? His tenure was proceeding smoothly and there was already a consensus that he was going to stay on top for a long time. The possible answer is that the constitutional amendment is an open statement to potential competitors to the throne that Xi’s policy agenda will continue in his second term.

In the past China has experienced political turmoil around the second terms of its previous leaders. In 2012, just months before the handover from then-President Hu Jintao to Xi, the Bo Xilai scandal erupted in a cloud of murder, espionage, and American involvement. Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, in order to prevent a political purge, did not give up power over the Central Military Commission until two years after passing the torch to Hu. The most prominent example is arguably when, in 1989, Premier Li Peng tried to replace General Secretary Zhao Ziyang over his handling of the Tiananmen Square student protests that would lead to bloodshed on June 4. Xi may be seeking way to avoid the instability brought by political succession by making it clear now that there will be no new king when his second term expires.

A mobile phone held by the photographer shows a photo from a court's microblog page of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai standing trial, in Jinan, Shandong province Aug. 22, 2013. Bo appeared in public for the first time in more than a year to face trial in eastern China, the final chapter of the country's most politically charged case in more than three decades.

Third and finally: Will Xi stay on after 2023?

Here at the Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages, I known several Chinese students around campus. They’ve been reticent to tell me what they truly think of Xi’s possible prolonged reign, but reading their responses offers some interesting clues. Asked about the proposed constitutional amendment, one student said, “We cannot afford to play politics,” while another said, “It is better to keep a distance.” By contrast, both are very passionate when discussing the messy politics of Taiwan.

A different student was critical of the proposed changes saying it would make Chinese people lose their faith in the law. Another cited the story of a famous martyr who was executed over a failed coup d’état against an empress dowager in the late Qing Dynasty. He even pointed out that this year shares the same Chinese zodiac as the year of the martyr’s death. One student was particularly reluctant to answer, replying: “Why do you need to ask me this question?” Later, he said of China’s 64-year-old leader: “Xi is still young; it is reasonable that he wants to stay longer. … He has sacked a lot of officials. He needs to stay in office, otherwise he will be in trouble,” the student added, concluding: “Xi is doing fine. Why do you have to ask me this question anyway?”

Reflecting on these students’ reactions, it doesn’t require too much reading between the lines to observe that the new generation is unhappy with what’s going on in the Beijing power circle. A few complain while some are indifferent, and others are angry. Similarly, China’s enlightened and enlarged middle class know what’s going on and don’t like it. Xi and his people know they shouldn’t sail against the current and especially that they shouldn’t destroy institutions such as the term and age limits established by previous generations of CCP leaders.

Thus, my rather bold prediction is that Xi will not continue as president after his second term ends in 2023. The purpose of the proposed constitutional amendment is to send a signal that he intends to maintain stability. Xi will surely remain in power after 2023, just not as president. If he stays on as general secretary, he will be following the Mao model. If he remains chairman of the Central Military Commission, he will be a new Deng.

So what does this mean for our tissue paper-strapped country?

The media here have been busy criticizing Xi’s plans to, according to them, not only stay in power after 2023 but to follow Mao, Deng, and Chinese emperors in being leader for life. However, this breathless coverage is overlooking something critical. Xi’s determination to continue his reign and implement his vision of reform may actually be a break for Taiwan, giving it precious time to think over how to proceed with China. The local media invariably bloat the importance of the cross-Strait issue; the fact is that Beijing has a lot more to worry about. Beijing has recently been preoccupied with other matters and this reluctance will persist for years to come.

Xi’s sleepless nights are not for Taiwan, and as long as he is worrying about other things, Taiwan can breathe somewhat easier.

Mark Wenyi Lai (賴文儀 )is Associate Professor, Department of International Affairs, Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages, Taiwan.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Insight, the online magazine of the University of Nottingham’s Taiwan Studies Program.

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