World on guard over Xi power play

China | Mar 1, 2018
Xi Jinping's leap toward lifelong rule has largely been met by guarded silence in world capitals as people try to predict how the formidable president will wield more power on the global stage.

The Communist Party move to lift presidential term limits will allow Xi to reign supreme as he pushes an agenda to turn China into a military and economic superpower by mid-century.

For it seems certain the constitutional amendment will be approved by the National People's Congress next week, enabling Xi to remain president beyond 2023.

"Xi has all this power, but we don't really know what he wants to use it for," said Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King's College London. "If it's to address challenges that need sorting out in China then that will be a good thing. If not, it will be deeply problematic."

Beijing is already causing jitters with growing assertiveness, from territorial claims in the South China Sea to the opening of a first overseas military base in the Horn of Africa and new influence across the Western world.

It may also be on the brink of a trade war with the United States, yet "with Xi leading the country for a very long time it's guaranteed foreign relations will be stable and predictable," said Wu Xinbo, a US politics expert at Fudan University.

Where countries stand on Xi largely depends on where they sit.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin's unyielding grip on power is being cited as a pointer for Xi's rule, with Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, saying the reaction to change in China is also largely positive.

Although some China-watchers express concern China could slip back into Mao-style authoritarianism, he added, the government thinks that Xi "staying in power beyond 2023 is a good thing," especially as relations with the West "are hitting new lows every month."

In Western countries, however, Xi's power play is likely to fuel growing suspicions about China.

After the election of Donald Trump in the United States, it has been noted, Beijing tried to step into the vacuum created by his rapid withdrawal from international trade pacts and environmental agreements.

The long-time look about Xi is expected to look particularly bad in Australia and New Zealand besides the United States. Concerns about China's growing power and how it chooses to exercise it increasingly preoccupies legislators.

The White House has avoided criticism of the move, saying the decision was "up to China".

But "there's been a lot more concern about China and what it wants abroad," said Eric Hundman, an international relations expert at New York University Shanghai. "Everybody's going to read this as he's going to be a dictator, which makes China look much more threatening."


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December 2018