Did Chinese Constitution Revision Make Xi A Dictator?
On March 11, 2018, a CNN reporter, Matt Rivers, called the latest Chinese constitutional revision the “coronation of a brand-new dictatorship.” Chinese exiled dissidents and critics swarmed to denounce “Xi’s dream of being an emperor,” but Chinese domestic opinions celebrated a new era of Chinese socialism. Before declaring Xi as a dictator for 1.4 billion people, what changes did the 2018 constitutional revision make that so profoundly implicated the Chinese politics?
Let’s take a closer look from a historical perspective. Since 1949, China has experienced four constitutions: the 1954 version; the 1975 version; the 1978 version; and the in-effect version, the 1982 version. The role of the presidency (Guojia Zhuxi, the National Chairman, in Chinese), has been constantly changed. The 1954 version granted the presidency statutory powers through the Supreme State’s Council, the Commander in Chief, and unlimited consecutive terms. However, these statutory authorities were redirected to the communist party leadership during the Cultural Revolution. The presidency as a legal term was abolished in the 1975 and 1978 constitutions. When the Chinese government engaged in economic reforms in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping made a clear notion limiting the presidency as a ceremonial position. It directly affected the in-effect constitution, which gave the presidency little political authority.
The following chart provides a clear comparison among four different constitutions.
Throughout this historical discourse, the Chinese presidency is limited by the National People’s Congress, in which the communist party holds the majority. The control over the military belongs to the Central Military Commission, but its members and leadership are selected by the National People’s Congress. Xi Jinping, as the party general secretary, who has no term limit according to the party constitution, possesses sufficient control over the state anyway within this convoluted sequence. The abolition of the president’s term limit has a trivial effect on Chinese politics. Instead, it is nothing but a ceremonial amendment.
A Weberian but Oriental Balance Between Institutions and Charisma
Then, what did the 2018 constitutional revision tell us about Chinese politics? This blog proposes a critical evaluation between political institutions and personal charisma that expands beyond the “Bad Emperor” problem proposed by Francis Fukuyama. The discussion about Xi has been largely misguided by reports overemphasizing domestic repressions by the communist party.
According to the Weberian definition of Charisma in Economy and Society, charisma “will be applied to a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is consider extraordinary.” It implies a tendency as if a person can be viewed as a “god” in a common setting. However, one of the key Weberian notions is a recognition process of charisma regarding institutional legitimacy:
In the case of hereditary charisma, recognition is no longer paid to the charismatic qualities of individual, but to the legitimacy of the position he has acquired by hereditary succession.
This is the breaking point of analyzing Xi.
Xi is a princeling. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a key player throughout the communist revolution. Xi’s “blood right” affects his path to central leadership. Other elites in Chinese politics may view him with certain forms of legitimacy. This charismatic, hereditary, but unspecified authority is not suggesting that Xi has a born right to rule. Instead, it is a remnant of long-standing political culture known as “the mandate of heaven,” originated and perpetrated by the Chinese imperial system for more than two thousand years. Namely, Chinese political culture does provide the head of state with certain extraordinary myths, in which it completely adheres to the Weberian conceptualization.
However, Xi’s family background is not enough. The Chinese political system has moved from the proletarian revolution to modernization since 1978 with the establishment of pragmatic principles and legal-rational bureaucracy. Xi must convince others that he is capable of managing this huge bureaucratic enterprise. If one were to take a close look at Xi’s official CV, one would find that Xi had extensive experience in both civil and military aspects. Not only did he serve in local and provincial levels of administration, but he also had direct involvements in the Chinese military system.
These comprehensive backgrounds on institutions demonstrate Xi’s abilities to effectively navigate within the entity of Chinese politics. This kind of “know-how” is rare compared to previous Chinese leaderships, such as Jiang and Hu.
Xi’s pedestal for power is a combination between political institutions and personal charisma as his legitimacy requires a simultaneous authorization.
However, Weber is clear about the incompatibility between these two. Weber suggests that the “extraordinary” part of charismatic authority is “sharply opposed to rational and particularly bureaucratic authority.” Such tension directly contributes to the comparison between Xi and Mao. One can interpret the incorporation of Xi’s thoughts in the constitution as a sign of enhancing Xi’s charisma. One can also view Xi’s image of “the father of the nation” as a revival of personality cult, that bears remarkable similarities with Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. When Xi can easily control the state’s bureaucratic institutions, he has the potential to promote his personal images through these institutions. He may create an individual-based authority that discourages ordinary Chinese citizens from engaging with common bureaucracies and redirects their trust to an individual. Eroding institutions through charisma is the true danger, not the abolition of the presidential term limit.
Chinese Xi, Not Xi’s China
Fortunately, the 2018 constitutional revision has a silver lining because Xi has not yet created such individual authority. It was true that the 2018 revision codified Xi’s political authority statutorily, but the revision also increased the autonomous power of individual regional governments. City-level administrations were given more legislative power to establish independent regulations and laws according to their needs than before. The revision also added five new clauses to the National Supervision Committee in all levels of governments to monitor governing activities according to the constitution. The 2018 revision pushed a wide range of reforms in the bureaucratic system — the institutional legitimacy and capability were codified and standardized — even though the party is still dominant. Ironically, these institutions may present themselves as a firewall between Xi’s cult of personality and ordinary citizens.
This delicate balance between institutions and charisma is certainly a conundrum. It would not be accurate to say, “now China belongs to Xi.” Instead, Xi and Xi’s ways of ruling are a precise product of Chinese political evolution since 1949. If one were to genuinely believe in China’s transition to democracy, one would be more intrigued to discuss the role of institutions and democratic developments in the locality. Calling Xi a dictator does no good for China. It only puts critics in a temporary spotlight.