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President, or Emperor? Xi Jinping pushes China back to one-man rule

Story highlights
  • Dropping term limits will allow Xi Jinping to stay on as China's President indefinitely
  • But analysts warn his absolute control could backfire in the instance of a crisis or economic shock

Hong Kong(CNN) The announcement Sunday that China will drop term limits on the presidency clears the way for Xi Jinping to rule the country indefinitely.

However, analysts warned that what initially seems like a demonstration of absolute power could actually be a sign of weakness, with Xi apparently unwilling to allow the rise of a potential political rival.

This could lead to future instability in the world's most populous country as wannabe successors jockey for power within a Communist Party (CCP) completely dominated by the 64-year-old Xi.

And his absolute authority will also leave him vulnerable to absolute blame in the instance of an economic shock or foreign policy crisis.

The latter could be increasingly likely, as Xi's rule so far has been characterized by a more bullish military and diplomatic policy as China seeks to move into a power vacuum left in Asia by a retreating Washington.

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Factional politics

Following Mao Zedong's death in 1976-- in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, during which tens of thousands of people were killed and the country was racked by civil war -- his successors moved away from one-man rule towards a consensus system where power was shared by a handful of high-ranking Party officials.

This resulted in relatively straightforward transition of power from Presidents Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, after each served two five-year terms in office.

Early in Xi's first term however, it became apparent he would seek to buck this trend. He was declared "core leader" of the Party, and state media began building up his public image with the type of hagiography not seen since Mao.

This culminated with "Xi Jinping Thought" being added to the Party constitution last year, at a key meeting in which Xi failed to nominate an obvious successor, fueling speculation he would stay on as leader past 2023.

The plan to drop presidential term limits was announced this week, and is due to go before China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress, next month, where it is guaranteed to be approved.

Margaret Lewis, a law professor and expert on China's constitution at Seton Hall University, said under Xi "what we've seen is an increasing lack of sharing of power even among the top leadership."

"Xi's modus operandi is consolidation of power," she said.

That could pose a problem to him in the long run. While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.

Jon Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, said Xi remaining as President and head of state, "negates the institutionalization of power transitions that have served the Party well for 35 years, enabling it to avoid damaging schisms that have plagued other Communist regimes."

While many internal CCP matters happen in a black box, most experts agree that there are factions within the party -- such as the so-called "Shanghai clique" around former President Jiang Zemin. Some have argued Xi's far-reaching anti-graft campaign is itself a tool to go after factional enemies and potential rivals.

That anti-corruption campaign will also get a boost with upcoming constitutional changes due to create a National Supervision Commission (NSC) with sweeping new enforcement powers, potentially affecting a much greater swath of China's population.

Message to enemies

Richard McGregor, author of "The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers," wrote after Sunday's announcement that it "sends a warning to his legion of enemies at the top of the party who have been hit by the anti-corruption campaign: he is not going anywhere."

"Xi's ability to push this decision through in the short-term is undoubtedly a display of his grip on all levers of power," McGregor wrote. "But the very fact that he feels the need to do so could easily be a sign of something else -- that he is possessed by an urgency to gather even more power than he already has to keep his enemies at bay."

This could result in increased pushback from within the Party, as those who had hoped to weather the Xi storm now have no option but to fight against him out of self-preservation.

According to Sullivan, term limits not only restrict the power of individual leaders, they give other elites and factions the consolation that there would be an opportunity to change the status quo after two terms.

"That 'consolation' is an important pressure valve that prevents crippling inner party battles. By getting rid of it, Xi is banking on being able to contain and neutralize his opponents," said Sullivan.

But doing so, Sullivan added, "will necessitate greater levels of repression, both in society and within the Party-state."

Repression and tyranny

Some of that repression was on show in the immediate aftermath of the announcement, when a flurry of discussion and criticism on Chinese social media was swiftly censored and controlled.

Comments on posts by state broadcaster CCTV announcing the news were deleted, as were those on the People's Daily newspaper and Xinhua news agency, and searches for key terms were blocked.

According to watchdog service FreeWeibo, top searches ahead of the blocking including "ascension to the throne," "term limits" and "Winnie the Pooh," a reference to the cartoon character which has become a mocking symbol of Xi on the Chinese internet.

Results for some of those topics on Weibo itself appeared to be being actively filtered, while others returned the message "search results are not shown in accordance with relevant laws, regulations and policies."

One term being completely censored was "Yuan Shikai," the former President of the Republic of China who dissolved a democratically-elected parliament in 1913 and appointed himself emperor.

A statement signed by a dozen leading Chinese dissidents, including former Tiananmen Square protest leaders Wang Dan and Wu'er Kaixi, also referenced the short-lived reign of the "Hongxian Emperor."

"We believe that the abolition of (term limits) is the equivalent of Yuan Shikai's revival of the imperial dynasty, it is the implementation of a new imperial system," the statement said.

History shows, they added, that lifelong "supreme rule and tyranny are inseparable and will surely bring great disasters to the country and its people."

Great power, great responsibility

While Xi's immediate grip on power is in little doubt, enabling him to enact whatever reforms and policies he desires, analysts warned that if things go south, he will have little room to avoid blame.

"If 'consolidation of power' was a precondition for implementing his reform program and leading the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, that condition has now been met and he needs to deliver," said Sullivan.

"And, if he doesn't deliver and refuses to go quietly, well that's a scenario we've seen play out in other regimes many times before," said Sullivan

A key test may come from outside China. Nowhere has Xi's new bullish leadership been more obvious than in China's foreign and military policy.

In the South China Sea, Beijing has continued the militarization of islands, reefs and islets in defiance of an international court ruling.

Last year, the People's Liberation Army -- reform and modernization of which has been a key Xi policy -- engaged in a months-long stand off with Indian troops over the disputed territory of Doklam, in the Himalayas, and China has sought to increase its military and economic influence in South Asia.

Under Xi, China has also taken a much tougher line on Taiwan. Beijing considers the self-ruled island, officially the Republic of China, part of its territory, and has not ruled out military action to reclaim it, even as support for full-independence from the mainland has grown among Taiwanese.

Tom Rafferty, a China expert at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said China's "move in an authoritarian direction will harden the divisions that have emerged between it and the major western powers, pointing to heightened international tensions over security and economic policy in the coming years."

And if the Chinese economy under-performs or in an event of a foreign policy crisis like Taiwan, Xi's political strengths could quickly translate into liability, analysts warned.

For now, Rafferty said, "Xi is set to lead China until he dies, chooses to step down, or is purged."

CNN's Nanlin Fang contributed reporting from Beijing.