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News Analysis: President Xi’s Strongman Rule Raises New Fears of Hostility and Repression

The party’s move comes as Mr. Xi has proclaimed an era of China’s greatness, when the country, he says, will take what he sees as its rightful place as a top global power. Already, it is establishing military bases in the Western Pacific and Africa, building infrastructure across Asia, parts of Europe and Africa, and running what Mr. Xi hopes will be the world’s No. 1 economy within two decades or sooner.

“China feels it is on the road to great power status and they want to perpetuate the trajectory they are on,” said David Finkelstein, director of China Studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Va.

Some analysts outside China said they worried that allowing Mr. Xi one-man rule might worsen an increasingly tense relationship between the United States and China.

After years of efforts by the United States to engage China on issues from market reform to climate change to human rights, the Trump administration turned on Beijing last December and called China a strategic competitor in its first national security document.

Washington policymakers are preparing plans to impose tariffs on some Chinese imports, limit Chinese investments in the United States, particularly in technology, and spend more on the United States military to sustain its big advantage over the People’s Liberation Army.

In Congressional testimony earlier this month, the director of the F.B.I., Christopher Wray, described China as “not just a whole of government threat but a whole of society threat.”

Mr. Trump may well see Mr. Xi’s consolidation of power as part of a global trend toward increasingly influential leaders, in which he might include himself along with Mr. Xi and Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian leader, said James Mann, the author of “The China Fantasy,” which contradicted the popular view that increasing prosperity would lead to political liberalization in China.

“I’m guessing he will not deplore the lack of democracy in China, because that’s the sort of thing he rarely if ever does,” Mr. Mann said of Mr. Trump.

Mr. Mann also said Mr. Trump might not have much problem with what Mr. Xi had accomplished.

“Over the past 14 months in office, Trump has almost never voiced the sort of support for our constitutional system that has been a staple in the statements of past presidents,” Mr. Mann said. “He does not respect the dignity or integrity of political opponents. He does not express support for the independence of the courts or the freedom of the press.”

So if anything, he said, “I think Trump is probably jealous.”

From Clinton to Bush to Obama, the prevailing belief was engagement with China would make China more like the West.


President Donald J. Trump and President Xi Jinping walking off stage after a meeting with business leaders in Beijing last year. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

Instead, as Mr. Mann predicted, China has gone in the opposite direction.

Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said Mr. Xi likely did not care how the world would interpret his designation as a potential ruler in perpetuity.

With an unlimited term in office, Mr. Xi would almost certainly be in office beyond 2024, the year Mr. Trump would leave the White House if he won a second term.

“This objectively makes him stronger than Trump, who has no reason to like the change,” Mr. Shi said.

At home, Mr. Xi will likely have considerable support for a third term, the result of a yearslong campaign to sideline political rivals and limit dissent. And nationalists cheered the decision, describing Mr. Xi as a singular force who could restore the glory of the nation.

But as the news spread, readings of Hannah Arendt who wrote about the evils of totalitarian rule, and passages from George Washington, who retired after two terms as president, were discussed on social media in Chinese legal circles.

Douglas H. Paal, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the sudden move, before Mr. Xi even starts his second term next month, suggested that things were not “normal” within the Communist Party.

“This looks like forced marching, not normal order, so something is going on,” Mr. Paal said. “Xi is winning, but it will take sleuthing to find out what. These are not ordinary times.”

A series of visits by senior Chinese officials to Washington in the past month to try and persuade the Trump administration to slow down plans to introduce punitive measures that could result in a trade war had failed, Mr. Paal said.

“This could get complicated when controversial U.S. initiatives meet unconventional times in China,” he said.

Still, Mr. Xi is popular in many areas — his fans affectionately call him “Uncle Xi” — and his brand of folksy nationalism wins accolades, especially in rural areas. Experts said Mr. Xi would likely benefit from the perception in China that the rest of the world is chaotic.

“With a population amazed at the incompetent mess in much of the rest of the world, and intoxicated by nationalism, for Xi to effect this change will be seen as reasonable,” said Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese politics at King’s College, London.

But Mr. Xi’s assumption of unfettered power may not work out the way he thinks, said Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and a former senior Australian defense official.

“The risks to his personal fortunes are huge,” he said. “What if the People’s Liberation Army decides he should be cut loose?” And, he added, “What if growth slows more than expected?”

If Mr. Xi comes under pressure at home or abroad, he could become unpredictable, and even dangerous, Mr. Jennings said. The reach for more personal power could be the start of his downfall.

“The West can take no comfort in that because Xi’s situation means he may take more risks in the South China Sea or over Taiwan,” he said. “He has nothing to lose and everything to gain by engaging in more Putin-like brinkmanship.”

Moreover, he added, “Where does one ever see the ‘president for life’ model end well?”

Source: NYT > World

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