New Cold War, or Make China Prosper?

Written by: Soeun (Sarah) Lee

China’s proposal to eliminate the presidential two-term limit has startled the world in several ways. It reversed the precedent set by Deng Xiaoping — Mao’s more neoliberal successor who stepped down from leadership in the Chinese Communist Party after two terms — and could make current leader, Xi Jinping, the longest serving leader since Mao. “Over-concentration of power is liable to give rise to arbitrary rule by individuals at the expense of collective leadership,” Deng said in 1980 when explaining his resignation. The abolition of the two-term limit was an unexpected and premature announcement as Xi was just now finishing his first term and could have made this change during his second term. Nevertheless, this decision lays the foundation for Xi’s indefinite leadership after his current 10-year limit expires. The question then becomes: how should this announcement be perceived around the world?

There are two main interpretations. On the one hand, this is just a domestic decision about domestic affairs. Xi Jinping has proclaimed the “Chinese Dream,” his long-term plan to make China prosper, as his motivation for leadership. To achieve the Chinese Dream, Xi has implemented some radical policies, including economic reforms as well as wars against poverty, corruption, pollution, and terrorism. These policies have found support amongst the Chinese people and increased Xi’s popularity among the Chinese population. Thus, the change to term-limits could be interpreted as merely a domestic consolidation of power for sustained prosperity. Since Xi’s Chinese Dream is a long-term plan which aims to fully develop China by 2049, it seems that Xi felt the necessity of long-term leadership.

Another interpretation coming from an Australian analyst argues the abolition of term-limits was intended to counter U.S. influence in the region and create a new Asian order with China in the center. Although the regional order appears to be shifting, it does not make much sense to say China is the one driving the U.S. out of the region. In fact, the U.S. has been drawing back from the Asia-Pacific region since Trump came to office. For example, last year the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. On the other hand, Xi has tried to expand China’s influence in and beyond the region. He established the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) when he became President in 2013 to develop regional economies, and the United States declined to join. Approving more than 20 projects, the AIIB has been expanding China’s influence in the region. The AIIB has been absorbing traditional U.S. allies too, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea, Israel and Saudi Arabia. While the U.S. is stepping back from the region, China has been leading the region’s economic development. Therefore, there is no evidence to suggest the decision to eliminate term-limits is a strategy to modify the regional order.

Yet, many analysts and China experts worry about a “New Cold War.” The decision to end term-limits stoked fears in U.S. policymakers that China is going astray. Xi’s potential authoritarian rule raises many concerns domestically, militarily, and diplomatically. Many people expect Xi to be a ‘leader for life’ and continue to use nationalism to justify his authoritarian rule. As Xi has shown highly nationalistic tones through policies and speeches, turning China to a more nationalistic country is a fait accompli. There already exists internal and external opposition to the Communist Party’s decision. “It’s not like the whole country agrees with the amendment, but everyone has been silenced. I couldn’t bear it any more. I was discussing with my friends and we were enraged. We have to voice our opposition,” says Li Datong, a former China Youth Daily editor. Chinese students in the United States are also expressing their opposition, making their own ‘Not My President’ posters. China has intensified its censorship of the internet and social media to keep up the appearance of positive public opinion. However, it seems not to be working as people are vigilant about going back to Mao’s era, which remains to be traumatic.

As the domestic pressure becomes serious, it is feasible that Xi could brew international conflict to divert from domestic pressure. This will most likely come in the form of economic or diplomatic competition with the U.S. There already exist several potential conflict points between the two countries. One example is the South China Sea, where China claims to have territorial rights over and has begun to build islands. The United States has responded with ‘freedom of navigation’ operations, sending U.S. Navy missile destroyer through the disputed territory. The South China Sea could become a place of conflict if Xi decides to respond militarily. The United States meanwhile has vested interests to defend in the region, as $1.2 trillion of U.S. trade passes through the Sea. Moreover, Trump’s obsession with strategic forces and his new nuclear policy targeting Russia and China will “make the relationship more profoundly confrontational,” says Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University.

China’s move to scrap term limits creates an air of anxiety over Xi’s tentative lifelong rule over China. Xi’s recent speech focused on his desire for military reform and unification of Hong Kong and Taiwan into the mainland. No one can tell what exactly will come next, but it seems to be clear that there will be constant tension as Xi’s power grab cements himself and his Chinese Dream.