Could Xi's latest power grab spell the beginning of the end for the Communist regime in China?

In ending term limits and granting himself power for life, could XI Jinping perhaps have fired the gun on China’s long and no doubt painful march towards democracy?

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China's President Xi Jinping.

China's President Xi Jinping. (By Associated Press)

KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) -- The news that many people had long been expecting arrived earlier this week as the Chinese Communist Party confirmed that it plans to change its own constitution to remove the two-term limit on Presidency of the country.

The change has been made with a view to current Chinese Communist Party leader and the country’s President, Xi Jinping, staying in power beyond the end of his current term in 2023 and, potentially for life.

The reaction to the news, outside of the Communist Party’s own domestic (and heavily censored) media bubble has been one of consternation. One group of scholars’ have described the move as a "political conspiracy."

There has also been discussion about how the change could impact Taiwan. Freedom House have claimed that the move "sends a chilling message to democratic voices in Hong Kong and to Taiwan," while others, like Bonnie Glaser from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, have suggested that it makes it more likely the status quo between Taiwan and China will remain, at least for now. 

But I am going to take another angle and suggest that maybe, just maybe, this constitutional change in China could be a catastrophic miscalculation by Xi which might, ultimately, prove to be the undoing of the CCPs grip on power. 

The importance of leadership change in China

Let me explain my thinking. Under its current constitution, China has changed leaders on a fairly regular basis. Over the past 35 years or so, as China has modernized and grown to superpower status, there has been a regular change of the person at the top of the CCP.

Li Xiannian and Yang Shangkun both held office for five years, before Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were in power for ten years apiece. It is no coincidence that this has coincided with China’s rapid development.

Just as in democracies, leadership changes bring about renewal and fresh policies. Even in a single-party state like China, there have been noticeable shifts in the way the country has been run as the leadership has changed.

For the people of China, while they have no say whatsoever in who governs them, these changes have nonetheless provided hope for change in their own circumstances and a sense that things in the country can get better. There is a lift in the popular mood in much the same way as there is when a new Government is elected to office in a democratic country.

This has also been the case since Xi Jinping came to power back in 2013. But for the most part, he has been moving various parts of Chinese policy back towards the days of Chairman Mao and his successor Liu Shaoqi. Power has become more and more centralized at the top of the party, a cult of personality has been established, and a further crackdown on freedoms has ensued.

Now, there will be no change in leadership in the CCP for the foreseeable future. Xi Jinping is only 64 years old and could in theory now remain in power for another twenty or thirty years. For the Chinese people, it will not take too long before this really begins to feel like the authoritarian regime that it is.

What happens when things go wrong?

At some point, things will start to go wrong for Xi. Many economists believe China has been balanced on the edge of an economic precipice for some time. They have huge debts and it is only state manipulation of the market that has prevented an economic crisis hitting China already. But one cannot be fended off indefinitely.

There are plenty of other things that could go wrong too. The North Korean issue is a sensitive one for Beijing’s relations with the outside world. And the case of Gui Minhai suggests that maybe the world might be starting to wake up to China’s horrific human rights abuses.

But with this new constitutional amendment, when something does go wrong, there is no hope for a change of leadership. There will be no opportunities for the CCP to renew and to wash away the failures with new leadership. Xi Jinping is now so ingrained into the CCP’s culture that he will now only leave when he decides to. Of course, he is popular at the moment, but popularity is something quickly lost and not easily regained, even with the power of the Chinese state behind you.

So, at some point, things go wrong and his popularity declines. Then what? This will inevitably lead to restlessness in the Chinese people. If people have lost money in an economic crisis there will be resentment and perhaps some public disorder. In places like Xinjiang and Tibet, where the CCP only clings to power by repressing the local people, there may be more and more public dissent.

Under Xi, the CCPs reaction to such disorder has been little more than brutal dissent. That would inevitably happen again. But if he continues to cling to power when public opinion has turned against him, then things could eventually come to a head.

If that were to happen, it would be brutal, violent, and bloody, with many lives lost. And Xi might prevail the first time, and maybe the second. But it is just possible that Xi’s reign could eventually trigger another revolution in China; one which finally throws off the shackles of his brutal Communist regime and frees the Chinese people from the authoritarianism of Xi Jinping.

I accept that this is just one possible scenario and maybe there is a little bit of wishful thinking in there too. But this is the 21st century. Modern ideas and communication will continue to pervade China despite the CCPs efforts to keep them out. Having an elderly, authoritarian Communist leader for life will not be in China’s best interests forever. And eventually, their people might come to realize that too.

As the group of scholars, who have condemned the change in leadership terms wrote, “Unlimited power of the state is inseparable from tyranny and will bring ruin upon the nation. To avoid such disaster, human societies have over time adopted democratic thinking, thereby establishing constitutional democracies.”

By removing the last vestiges of any Constitutional democracy in China, and returning the country to full authoritarianism, could Xi Jinping perhaps have set the country on its last long and final march towards a real one.