Simply put yes, President Xi has formed a China into a “Frankenstate” in which his power is growing. On March 11th 2018, China’s legislative body, the National People’s Congress, voted to get rid of the presidential term limits specified in the country’s constitution. Out of the near 3000 people who form the body only 5 did not support the vote. This single piece of legislation opens to door for President Xi to continue his term indefinitely. Xi is also currently the most powerful man in China holding the positions of president, party leader(in a one party system) and military chairman. Many political figures feared this was going to happen after Xi failed to choose a successor as was customary to do in your final term, and they were obviously right. There was very little push back from either the public or the media because Xi is loved by the population and feared by the presses. Due to government censorship even if there were dissenting opinions within the country it is unlikely that they would ge outside the borders.
President Xi has also been called China’s first populist president, often times promising that he is the leader to make China into the superpower that is can be. Xi in one speech spoke about his plans for the next 30 years, and obviously he couldn’t do that with the term limit laws in the way. When he first came into office in 2013 Xi promised that he would fight corruption from the largest tiger to the smallest fly. Petty corruption has substantially decreased, and while that’s a great thing Xi has been outspoken that he is the sole reason for it. President Xi doesn’t have to answer directly to the voters ulike many world leaders, but he does answer to the communist party as the leader of it. Xi perfectly timed his stint in office because in 2021 he will be the current leader of the party as the party turns 100 years old. He will be celebrated in the streets, and doesn’t have to share the spotlight with a successor. Over the past 5 years Xi has used his fight against corruption to restructure the government and the party, making the communist party play a much more defined role in the lives of citizens. He has also used his power to influence schools a state medias to support the party. Nationalism in China is on the rise as Xi preaches a trump-esq China first mentality. This has created some problems internationally just as Trumps brash approach to trade has, and while it hasn’t yet lead to military conflict it very easily could from the creation of islands in the south China sea to the constant patrols in the east China sea. President Xi has also overhauled and updated the people’s liberation army for that exact reason.
Earlier I said President Xi is a threat to democracy, but it’s not actually Xi himself it’s the policies that he is putting in place that could be extorted later down the road. President Xi could be the greatest leader in all of China’s history, but as soon as he leaves the office another leader could step in an abuse a weakened system of checks and balances. A similar individual with the trinity of leadership roles (party leader, president, chairman of the army) could keep his roles until he dies, because the role of the chairman of the armed forces (lifetime role), party leader (party dependent), and president (indefinite). The party claims that they will remove a president in who they feel is not doing what’s best for the party, but the president would be hard to remove if he was also the leader of the party and commanded a large armed force. We read about a very similar set of circumstances in Venezuela. The situation that could look a lot like Venezuela Chavez the charismatic leader who was adored by the public was able to weaken the checks and balances on the Presidential role, and while Chavez wasn’t perfect he was a popular populist meaning that he actually worked to make the country better. Chavez was succeeded by Maduro and he lead the country in a much different direction. Now Venezuelans can’t buy food, and there are riots in the streets. While there are obvious differences between the two situations, and Xi could not see a successor for a long time the similarities are enough to make you think twice.
Muller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: UPenn Press.
Scheppele, Kim Lane. 2013. “Not Your Father’s Authoritarianism: The Creation of the ‘Frankenstate’.” European Politics and Society Newsletter.
I really liked the detail in which you discussed how President Xi is a threat to Chinese democracy. I would also like to preface this comment with the fact that I do not know a ton about China or the Chinese government. While I understand that President Xi has turned China into a “Frankenstate” I am curious about the state of democracy in China before the abolishment of term limits. The Chinese government is a predominantly one-party system— my understanding of the items required for a democracy is that one of them is the space for opposing thoughts. With a one party system, government control of the press, and other censorship it seems that China— before President Xi’s recent victory in the National People’s Congress— was already in a deep state of democratic decline. In fact China is ranked as “Not Free”, according to Freedom House. So I suppose my comment is that a more accurate question might be not “Is President XI A Threat to Democracy?” but be “Is President Xi accelerating the decline from authoritarianism to dictatorship?” In my opinion it seems like it may be going that way— with the President being in charge of everything for as long as he wants— but I would be curious to hear your thoughts!
I thought this was a really interesting post. I think China is becoming a really interesting state to watch as Xi consolidates power. What is interesting about China’s plan is while Xi consolidates power, the state is implementing a strategy that gives the population access to education and greater wealth. I think this will ultimately lead to more democracy in China. Singapore is an excellent example where an authoritarian state increased wealth and access to education. But now, Singaporeans have begun to demand more civil liberties. I think the same thing will happen in China but for now it seems as if people in China are happy with Xi. What I think political scientist should be asking is what is the relationship between authoritarianism and high performing economies? Will the Chinese be willing to forgo civil liberties in exchange for higher GDP’s? This concept of high performing economies and authoritarianism is not just in China or Singapore, Hungary’s Victor Orban cited Singapore is an example to follow.
I am particularly interested in your reference to Xi’s policies as “trump-esque” in nature. I think that this is an important comparison to be made as more comparisons have been drawn between President Xi and President Putin than with Trump, but I think that the similarities between the three of them are very important. Currently we live in an international situation where the three main players seem to be the United States, Russia and China, each vying for hegemonic relative power. Each of them seems to be employing a tactic of national power combined with authoritarian controls over the public with the justification being that the authoritarian controls are for the greater good of the nation. While there are many schools of thought related to international relations, one of the ones that is most widely regarded as invalid is realism, the idea that states are only interested in their own self-preservation even if it is at the expense of another state, and power is the only way to “win”. However, it seems as if three of the most powerful nations are reverting their policies back to a realist type mindset. In this global day and age, this is not the way to achieve influence in the world and I worry that this shift towards authoritarian regimes indicates a shift away from mutual cooperation.
Great comparison to Venezuela’s Chavez, although I feel Chavez was able to really rally and connect with the people on a more charismatic level than President Xi; however, both have a very populist appeal that has made them extremely successfully in their own respective regards. It seems that the Communist party has not been very reluctant in ridding their term limits to allow President Xi to continue especially with only five votes that did not support his ‘indefinite’ presidency. One big issue that I would’ve liked to see more is the development of corruption in China especially within the Communist party. I see that President Xi has been extremely effective in solving the problem of petty corruption; however, how does his crackdown on corruption affect those within the ranks of the Communist party? I would believe that it would leave a ‘bad taste’ towards President Xi as well as possible sub-groups forming within the party that would like to have him replaced. It could be that President Xi’s hard market towards crackdown on corruption has derailed the checks & balances within China and it might have even affected the Communist party’s vulnerability to abuse. Opposing party members could possibly be suppressed by President Xi out of fear? With his populist style and ‘strong man’ policies on ridding the government of corruption, President Xi could’ve tilted the balance in power towards the presidency and have made it more susceptible to abuse. In my opinion, I believe his attitude and the results from cracking down on corruption has created fear amongst those who oppose him within the party; thus, has ultimately allowed him to bend the political system to his favor. Overall, great discussion and would love to hear if you have any thoughts on the effects of corruption on President Xi’s reputation within the Communist party.
Your premise is intriguing. I just have some concerns with the use of the concepts “Frankenstate”, with President Xi as a “populist”, and with your mention of China’s “system of checks and balance”.
1. On the Chinese government as a Frankenstate: Kim Scheppele used her concept of a Frankenstate on the case of Hungary where Orban entrenched his party’s power in the country’s key democratic institutions. A Frankenstate is a system created through the combination of the bits and pieces of democracy, the combination of which is what creates the “horror”. In China’s case, there are no democratic institutions that can be broken down and re-arranged to create a Frankenstate. Long before Xi’s presidency, they have been under a one-party rule.
2. On President Xi as populist: President Xi is not a popularly-elected official. In Muller’s terms, a candidate can be classified as a populist if he/she is anti-establishment and anti-pluralist. President Xi’s ascension into power is brought upon by China’s intricate system of intra-party elections, compared to those officially classified as populists (Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, France’s Marine Le Pen, America’s Donald Trump). Xi cannot be classified as anti-establishment because he and his party are the establishment, and he cannot be classified as anti-pluralist because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has no legitimate opposition with respect to holding positions of power through elections. For what it’s worth, the CCP runs a one-party rule—an authoritarian one at that.
3. On China’s system of checks and balance. The system of checks and balance that we all know exists in democracies is not present in China’s current political system. Their practice inside institutions is not similar to the way democracies pose a separation of powers.
Overall, I think that the implications of China have something to do more with the global status of democracy, as their “rise” proposes alternatives that may appeal to their neighbors that are currently democratic.