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This weekend, as Beijing emerged from its post-Spring Festival torpor, the Chinese Communist Party decided it would be a good time to mess with everyone by casually dropping a hint that we all better get used to Xi Jinping’s paternalistic grimace for the next decade or more.
The New York Times reports:
China’s Communist Party has cleared the way for President Xi Jinping to stay in power, perhaps indefinitely, by announcing on Sunday that it wants to abolish the two-term limit on the presidency — a dramatic move that would mark the country’s biggest political change in decades.
The party leadership “proposed to remove the expression that the president and vice president of the People’s Republic of China ‘shall serve no more than two consecutive terms’ from the country’s Constitution,” Xinhua, the official news agency, reported.
My Twitter feed is still processing the announcement, with views ranging from “this is actually a sign of weakness” to “Holy jumping Jesus fish, China’s got itself a new emperor.”
Really worth thinking about whether a third term for #Xi is a sign of weakness. “Can” he even step down? 1. Achievements? 2. Anti-Corruption Movement Enemies? 3. Who would protect him, who his 靠山? (All former Chinese leaders need protectors after they retire.)
— Didi Kirsten Tatlow (@dktatlow) February 25, 2018
I heard the news while in the middle of my annual Godfather I, II, and III marathon. According to some reports, The Godfather is one of Xi Jinping’s favorite movies, too. I’ve always been tempted to call bullshit on that little factoid. It seems like one of those tidbits that causes the more gullible to think “Hey, he’s just like us! He likes gangster movies and Iowa, too!” But looking at the trajectory of Xi Jinping, it’s hard not to think of the parallels with la Familia Corleone.*
That’s alright — this thing’s gotta happen every five years or so — ten years — helps to get rid of the bad blood.
The proposed change sets aside the constitutional requirement limiting the terms of the guojia zhuxi and guojia fuzhuxi (which Xinhua News Service really, really wants us to keep translating as “President” and “Vice-President”) to two five-year terms. This is a major departure from recent precedent, and a strong signal that the 64-year-old Xi Jinping will remain in power after his current five-year term ends in 2022. He’s the first leader in a generation who has had that kind of juice. Hu Jintao didn’t have it. Jiang Zemin didn’t have it.
Xinhua’s terse announcement
But the move also locks in place a set of policies and direction for the country. The Global Times wants us all to believe that’s a good thing:
Over the past two decades, a trinity of leadership consisting of the CPC Central Committee general secretary, president of the nation and chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission has taken shape and proven to be effective. To remove the two-term limit of the Chinese president can help maintain the trinity system and improve the institution of leadership of the CPC and the nation.
But regular changes in leadership — like the occasional Mob war — also keep grudges from getting out of hand and open up channels for fresh blood in the ranks. In political terms, it prevents ideas from growing stale, or one person’s agenda from dominating policy and stifling new thinking. I have a hunch Xi would say, “That’s exactly what I’m trying to do” — but I’m already hearing grumblings around the capital that not everybody agrees that this is in the best interest of the country.
I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.
The announcement also opens a pathway for Xi Jinping’s close ally and chief hatchet man Wang Qishan to re-emerge from temporary retirement and resume a position of influence within the Party and government. The man is 69 years old — two years younger than Donald Trump — and clearly feels like he has more to offer. Moreover, Don Corleone was nothing without his Luca Brasi. That’s why the Tattaglia’s and Solozzo went after Luca first. For the past six years, Wang Qishan has been Xi Jinping’s Luca Brasi.
My father’s name was Antonio Andolini, and this is for you!
I know a lot has been made of Xi Jinping’s background as a “Princeling.” His father, Xi Zhongxun (1913-2002), was a famous revolutionary, and contributed to economic policymaking in the Deng Xiaoping era, but the elder Xi was also purged by Mao in 1965 and buried in prison for nearly a decade before being shipped off to a Henan tractor factory until 1978. Overnight, the younger Xi went from pampered princeling to spending his formative years in Shaanxi working on a farm and shitting into a bucket. By all accounts, he accepted his fate and came out of the experience stronger, but you have to think that the memory of being powerless and wasting your youth while your Dad rotted in prison was a powerful motivation for the son’s climb to the top.
I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom. Just my enemies.
After Xi took power in 2012, it didn’t take long for him to bring his enemies and rivals to heel. Central Military Commission chairman Xu Caihou, former security czar Zhou Yongkang, and Hu Jintao aide-de-camp Ling Jihua were all investigated, expelled from the Party, and, in the case of Zhou and Ling, are now serving life sentences. (Xu Caihou died of bladder cancer in 2015.)
The effect was chilling throughout Chinese officialdom. The Party establishment has always had a Human Centipede quality to it. Powerful figures at the top eat their fill at the government trough and the benefits — and problems — flow down the chain. Xi decapitated several of these important patronage networks while appearing to get serious about the problem of endemic Party corruption.
Eventually, the list of victims included powerful regional officials like Su Rong and Bai Enpei, rising star Wan Qingliang, and high-ranking officers in the PLA like Gu Junshan. I’m guessing that Xi Jinping, with Wang Qishan once again acting as button man, still has a few more scalps he’d like to nail to his wall now that it’s clear he’s going to be around for a while.
There are negotiations being made that are going to answer all of your questions and solve all of your problems.
Xi also consolidated control of policymaking by creating “Central Leading Groups” that superseded existing institutions in an effort to become, in the words of Australian Sinologist Geremie Barmé, The Chairman of Everything. These “Leading Groups” have allowed Xi to put his mark on a wide range of policy vectors — including briefs usually handled by the State Premier and the National Security Commission — but at the expense of dividing his attention and creating a Xi-sized bottleneck for making decisions.
All my life I was trying to get up in society… where everything is legal, but the higher I go the more crooked it becomes.
One interpretation of the decision to scrap term limits is that it is actually a sign of weakness: Xi Jinping has made many enemies who might be simply waiting until Xi is out of power to serve their dish of revenge. While little mud has stuck to Xi Jinping himself or his immediate family, Bloomberg pissed off a lot of people in the Xi camp back in 2012 when they started delving into the finances of other members of the Xi Zhongxun clan. In particular, Xi Jinping’s older sister Qi Qiaoqiao and her husband Deng Jiagui — as well as another brother-in-law, Wu Long — hold vast real estate and other assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Personally, I don’t buy the “We’re weak so we’re going to stay in office a lot longer” argument. I think this has been the plan for some time, and that Xi Jinping has been steadily making moves behind the scenes to build up his power and influence and to extend his grip on power.
I also wonder whether there’s a Connie/Michael dynamic at work here. Michael was always content to lecture and then look the other way while Connie played the floozie. He had a soft spot for his younger sister — since he had her husband whacked for dropping a dime on Sonny — and for her part, Connie needed Michael to access family funds and influence.
A man in my position can’t afford to look ridiculous.
The big news on Sunday seemed to catch the censors off guard. I’m sure they weren’t told in advance, and it was no doubt hard to keep up with the wave of satire, puns, and general WTF? messages which kept popping up on my WeChat and Weibo feeds.
This morning, the powers that be seem to be catching up, but not before a few hilarious memes were born.
— Owen Churchill (@owenschurchill) February 25, 2018
Every family has bad memories.
The Xi Jinping era has also meant a serious chill in academia, particularly for the discussion of China’s modern history. Party journals brand critical assessments of 20th-century disasters such as the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward as “historical nihilism,” the use of history by internal rabble and foreign enemies to delegitimize the Party in the present. Deconstructing Party mythology or debunking treasured tropes of heroic martyrs or the Party’s role in the Anti-Japanese War are also being treated as political dissent. There is no room in Xi’s New Era for any awkward bits from the Party’s past. If any one thing shows that the Party, however strong outwardly, still cowers inside like a bacon-wrapped mouse at a feline meth orgy, it is the absolute inability to reflect honestly on the recent past.
Fredo has a good heart, but he is weak… and stupid, and stupid people are the most dangerous of all.
Pour one out for Li Keqiang. We hardly got to know you. Hopefully, your sentence will be simply “doomed to irrelevancy” and not Wang Qishan offering to take you out for a “fishing trip” during the next Beidaihe confab.
First of all, you’re all done. The Corleone Family don’t even have that kind of muscle anymore. The Godfather’s sick, right? You’re getting chased out of New York by Barzini and the other Families. What do you think is going on here? You think you can come to my hotel and take over? I talked to Barzini — I can make a deal with him, and still keep my hotel!
How would you like to be Wu Xiaohui right about now? Anybody able to get him to answer you back on WeChat? Now that the Chinese government has taken over Anbang, the insurance mega-conglomerate which owns — among other things — the Waldorf Astoria in New York, will Donald Trump get to pay Xi Jinping back for all of the tutelages on North Korea and world politics by briefing Xi on running a luxury hotel into the ground?
Your father did business with Hyman Roth, he respected Hyman Roth… but he never trusted Hyman Roth!
Just because Xi looks like he’s pulling a Putin doesn’t mean Xi actually likes Putin. Foreign China watchers have gotten this one wrong before. If anything, having competing strongmen in Moscow and Beijing has usually meant worsening relations between the two capitals rather than sleepovers and light experimental petting.
Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
Speaking of crackpot dictators, I wonder how Pugsly in Pyongyang feels about all of this. If he had any sense of humor at all, he’d send Xi Jinping a nice note and jacket to the “Leaders for Life Club.” Maybe this hits too close to the nose, as I’m in Beijing and already hearing “West Korea” jokes…
I’m a little worried about this Sollozzo fellow. I want you to find out what he’s got under his fingernails. Go to the Tattaglias, and tell them you’re not too happy with our Family, and find out what you can…
One of Xi Jinping’s top economic advisors, Liu He, is heading to Washington this week, ostensibly to reduce trade tensions. But many observers — including Bill Bishop — are suggesting that the mission was really planned to give Liu He a chance to brief officials in the US about the new normal in China, and to reassure them that Xi pulling a Caesar isn’t anything to get too worked up about.
Tom Hagen: Yeah, it was once. The Roman Empire… when a plot against the Emperor failed, the plotters were always given a chance to let their families keep their fortunes.
Frankie Pentangeli: Yeah, but only the rich guys. The little guys got knocked off. If they got arrested and executed, all their estate went to the Emperor. If they just went home and killed themselves, up front, nothing happened.
Tom Hagen: Yeah, that was a good break. A nice deal.
One of my favorite scenes in Two. Couldn’t help but rewind it and imagine it with Wang Qishan and Wen Jiabao in the Tom and Frankie Five-Angel roles.
Now you come to me and say, “Don Corleone, give me justice!” But you don’t ask with respect. You don’t offer friendship. You don’t even think to call me “Godfather.”
This has been a stone in my shoe for a long time. Xinhua has insisted since 1982 that guojia zhuxi (国家主席) be translated into English as “President.” Why do we listen to them? If they want the English term to be “President,” then start calling the position zongtong (总统) in Chinese.
But they won’t, because they want to project power with Chinese characteristics to the domestic audience, while trying to normalize the Leninist system for international consumption. This fiction of “President Xi” is going to be hard to maintain when he’s 83 years old and starting his sixth term. Harder still when Xi starts wearing yellow robes and tries offering Xi Mingze to Jared Kushner as a “Noble Consort.”
Frankly, calling Xi “Godfather of China” wouldn’t be the worst idea given his paternalistic attitude toward rule, but I’m sure the international media will find a workaround somewhere between Xinhua’s bullshit and Sicilian cultural appropriation. “China’s leader” or “China’s Supreme Leader” sounds about right.
Surely he can charge a fee for such services. After all, we are not Communists.
Which makes me wonder if a name change for the Party might not be the next bombshell. Not soon and not likely (I’d say Vegas would put it on the board at a 27-1 long shot), but it would signal a clear break from the Maoist past. A change of “reign name” would also put Xi in a pantheon that goes above and beyond CCP history.
You’re getting a real reputation, Sonny! I hope you’re enjoying it!
There is always the chance that this might be too much for the urban elite of China to accept quietly. Not a big chance, mind you. Fatalism and self-preservation are strong instincts in 21st-century China. But it’s worth noting that “Yuan Shikai” is being intermittently blocked as a search term on Chinese social media.
Among the obvious censored search terms — "Constitution", "Xi Jinping" etc — are some other interesting terms — "Winnie", "Disney China", "Emigrate" and "Yuan Shikai" (the first official president of the Republic of China, who proclaimed himself Emperor). via @FreeWeibo pic.twitter.com/EU1Jj8uzxe
— ?Fergus Ryan (@fryan) February 25, 2018
In 1915, on the advice of American political science professor Frank Goodnow, Yuan Shikai, then president of the Republic of China, decided that ordering the assassination of his political rivals, abolishing parliament, and neutering the constitution were insufficient to achieve his goals of national strength. In addition, he decided to revive the monarchy and make himself the new emperor.
Goodnow, for his part, argued that China was unsuited for democracy and required a strong authoritarian figure. While many in the Chinese political establishment agreed that democracy was not a workable solution at the time, and were even willing to acquiesce to Yuan Shikai’s dictatorial style, the idea of a new emperor was a step too far. Officials quit the government. Provinces seceded from the Republic, and within a few months, Yuan was forced to walk back his monarchical ambitions.
It seems unlikely that Xi Jinping would make this move unless he had already lined up the backing of the Party elite. There’s also a full-court press going on in the major papers today. But the concern over social media memes and search terms suggests that the Party knows this might be an issue for some people.
For the better part of 25 years, the deal was that the Party was in charge, and China would be an authoritarian state but it would also include the modern trappings of government, including some transparency and at least a head fake in the direction of accountability and orderly transitions of power. The decision to scrap term limits deals a serious blow to this “norming” of the Chinese system, not just around the world, but inside China as well. It remains to be seen how well that goes over with key constituencies.
This is NOT… WHAT… I WANTED!
I’ll just leave this one out there:
Deng in 1980: "Tenure for life in leading posts is linked both to feudal influences and to the continued absence of proper regulations in the Party for the retirement and dismissal of cadres." https://t.co/gJSNSDtJZ9
— Jude Blanchette (@judeblanchette) February 25, 2018
* Many, many years ago I did the Sicilian Guide to Chinese History for my old Granite Studio blog. Sue me. I love The Godfather. Apparently, so does Xi Jinping. This was a vein too rich to not revisit the mine one more time.
Cover image: Asia Media International/LMU
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