We all expected Xi Jinping's third term in office, but now that it's official, what does it mean for the world ahead?
Over 1.4 billion human beings (around 18 percent of our species) live in the People’s Republic of China. This weekend a series of ceremonial acts in the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) placed all of them—and the watching world—on unprecedented ground.
For almost 40 years, since the 1982 State Constitution developed under Deng Xiaoping, there has been a two-term limit, of up to 10 years, for any Chinese president. That constitution was an express attempt to modernize and stabilize China in the wake of a Cultural Revolution that killed millions under Mao Zedong. It was Communist, but also expressly carved out a space for non-state-owned economic enterprise; centralized in governance, but with a role for democratic practice, and to a small extent dissent. (Earlier versions carved out stronger individual rights, which were then scaled back, with rights related to private property only much later growing to accommodate China’s burgeoning middle class.)
In 2018, the 13th National People’s Congress saw major changes to that constitution: among them, amendments that eliminated the two-term limit and centered the CCP as the protected and singular representative of the country: effectively turning China into a one-party state. This meant the sitting president, Xi Jinping, could exercise a constitutional right to continue after his 10-year limit.
Which is precisely what he did on October 22, at the 20th National People’s Congress. At 69 years old, Xi is also past a tacit age of retirement for senior party leaders. When he entered the Great Hall of the People with his Politburo Standing Committee, in order of political ranking for the government in the next five years, their complement also illustrated a significant change in hierarchy. Gone are politicians who were not close to Xi, in a predicted solidifying of his power among loyal party members. He also consolidated his power through a recent military reshuffle that concluded in being named himself as chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Most media has quite responsibly not yet leapt to grand conclusions about this confirmation of a plan well-understood to have occupied the bulk of Xi’s last five-year term in office. But consensus about the implications is also strong on a few accords:
First, Xi will be able to focus more on domestic and foreign policies unrelated to trying to secure more personal power in office. These include a more challenging set of relationships with the US, as per Xi’s report for the 20th National Congress, which alludes to potential tensions not just around Taiwan but also in trade relationships requiring the pursuit of stronger alliances elsewhere.
These tensions around trade also have a critical technological component. China and the US remain competitors for dominance not just in the 5G digital era (where they already came into conflict over Chinese-state-backed private systems with complex security issues, as in the case of Huawei), but also in anticipating the next phase of digital telecommunications systems that deeply inform possibilities for international surveillance and sabotage. At stake for both countries is access to competitive manufacturing and raw materials key to continued technological growth, which is why the future of Taiwan is also a topic of key consideration for US-Chinese relations.
Locally, there is still great concern about how Xi’s ongoing presidency will translate to economic fortunes. China has been pursuing a much more aggressive zero-tolerance policy toward COVID-19 outbreaks, which has led to significant local economic stressors. The Financial Times also recently noted that China’s growth during Xi’s time in office has been tied up to a potentially concerning degree in investments that could spell trouble for the nation if a more diversified economic approach doesn’t materialize soon.
Caution is wisest, then, as we approach the coming era. It’s all too easy to gamify the current consolidation of immense global power in just a few hands, but if Xi’s ongoing reign does indeed spell hard times for China’s 1.4 billion, the ramifications will be felt much more widely in the world as well. Staying informed is for now the best policy.