Plainly a man who embodies and epitomises the phrase “quiet ambition”, President Xi has, astute as ever, chosen a moment of maximum leverage to try to extend his term in office.
Having just won approval for a second five-year term and with his popularity on a high, the Chinese Communist Party has “proposed” to change the constitution so that the two-term limit on a presidential tenure is abolished. It is a “proposal” that is purely a matter of form and etiquette: Mr Xi will be President, if all goes well, for life or such time as he wishes to retire. It is quite a moment.
In doing so he will, or so he must hope, cement his position as the third great leader of his nation since the revolution of 1949. In preserving the national unity and integrity that Mao restored; in extending the free market reforms that Deng Xiaoping began in the 1980s and in completing China’s ascent to economic and military superpower status, Mr Xi will have made his mark on Chinese and world history. And all without even so much as a memorable quote.
Mr Xi is still a young man, certainly by China’s standards. He may feel that, at a mere 64 years of age and in power since 2013 he is only just ending his apprenticeship for the task he is undertaking. Interestingly, he is the first Chinese leader since the 1950s to be younger than the American president. He is also the first to be born after the end of the Second World War. In Beijing he is something of a whizz kid.
His ambitions for the country are already obvious. China wishes to secure its economic and financial security through a network of transnational economic assets – the so-called Belt and Road initiative. This comprises the infrastructure of road, rail and sea routes to link China with the West, including ports and shipping plus the possession and protection of sources of national resources across Asia and Africa. It has been called a form of colonialism, though it is not so very different to, say, the giant Western oil and mining firms following policies congruent with the interests of Western governments.
Still, a power emerging as forcefully as China cannot but disturb its neighbours – all of them. The dozens of micro-territorial disputes across the South China Sea represent a wider, more fundamental fear that China is getting too big and, more to the point, cannot entirely be trusted to allow for free movement by rivals on vital trade routes and a fair exploration of whatever oil, fishing and other resources are available in the region. From Japan to the Philippines and Brunei, China’s ever more visible naval presence causes nervousness. Worries among America’s allies are only heightened by a corresponding lack of faith in the will and ability of the Trump White House to defend their interests.
As for President Trump’s policy towards China itself, it is at least not as complicated nor compromised as it is with Russia. Apart from the geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea it centres on North Korea and on trade. Both are, mercifully, looking less problematic than even a few months ago, thanks to the ironic thaw in relations between the two Koreas during the Winter Olympic Games, and the restraint that both Washington and Beijing have shown.
Despite making trouble for one another and sparking tensions on trade, for now the uneasy partnership between President Trump and President Xi is a relatively stable factor.
Which leaves the small matter of the governance of China, and how far it can sustain the model of development that has served it so well and which President Xi appears committed to. How long, in other words, can China’s overinvestment, underconsumption, undervalued currency, unstable banks, waste and trade surpluses continue before there is a moment of reckoning? The greatest global economic imbalance remains the US-China trade relationship, and it remains the biggest single underlying threat to the world economy.
How long too, it may be asked, can a one-party state with such a poor record on human rights sustain an economy that relies on a certain degree of individual freedom and exposure to the outside world? How long also before China has to take even tougher action to make its economic renaissance a greener one?
These questions, while urgent, are ones that China’s leader now seemingly wants to take his time over. It might be too easy to see that habitual Chinese caution drift into complacency and carelessness. After all, this is a regime which is rarely troubled by its media or internal challenges, and it is about to take another step towards authoritarianism. Modes of thought and policy are not being criticised, tested or questioned, and mistakes are all the more likely for the lack of competition in people or ideas.
All in all, this is a regressive move for a nation so set on forwards development.