Due to decades of crackdowns and surveillance, political bravery, it seems, in Communist China comes in small doses. Last month, a mere two of the 3,000 delegates in the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber stamp legislature, voted against the constitutional change to the abolish Chinese presidential term limits in a secret ballot. The identities of these two delegates will never be known, like that of the solitary Tank Man in 1989, but I laud their opposition nonetheless. With the unwavering support of the other 2998 delegates, however, China is on a different trajectory now. President Xi Jinping can now theoretically stay in office for life. And the workings of Deng Xiaoping which laid the groundwork for China to smoothly become the economic and political behemoth it is today are now in jeopardy, particularly in two areas.
First, most obvious is the issue of succession. Deng had set term limits for the presidency, in response to the very practical issue of chaos from a neverending personal rule in China. Xi Jinping, by scuttling it away, had opened up the pandora box of political succession disputes, which has caused turmoil in China since the dynastic era. In fact, Xi’s pick of vice president, Wang Qishan, shows the current president has no intention of passing along power for a long time. Wang’s old age (69) rules out the fact he will take the top job. Additionally, while Wang’s close relationship with Xi would perhaps foster some kind of stability at the highest levels of power, there is no guarantee there will not be a personal falling out the likes of Mao and his deputy Liu Shaoqi. Because a lot of power is centralized among few, Communist Chinese politics has always been highly personal and Xi has effectively opened up the most personally and politically-charged issue in China’s history: who gets to call the shots?
Second, Chinese foreign policy may now take a more aggressive tone. Everywhere the United States is receding, in terms of economic and political relationship, China is now filling in the gap in soft power. But altruism plays little role in international politics: China is not building high-speed rail in Indonesia and modernising Chad’s water system for free. Eventually, they will want some advantage or support in return on issues like territory in the South China Sea, the Taiwan question and opposition to Indian influence in Asia. And Xi, with a domestic position more secure than ever, may now look abroad to call on those debts and further increase international hegemony.
People who truly want democratic change in China are as hapless as the two deputies, whom probably will be somehow identified in the “secret” ballot and never be invited to return to the grand halls of the National People’s Congress ever again. In his first term, some had hoped that Xi’s corruption campaign signified a Gorbachev-esque liberalisation of the Communist state would follow. But Xi’s continuing of crackdown human rights dissidents is ironclad evidence that the Chinese president has other ideas. Additionally, I believe that it is exactly the example of Gorbachev’s fall and the Soviet Union’s collapse along with him, that has nudged Xi and his colleagues to eschew liberal reforms and go another route.
As a foreigner looking inward, I don’t know what to do in order to advance democracy in China. But what I have noticed is that the biggest roadblock to liberalization movements from the echelons of power in Beijing to the Chinese countryside, is the lack of an organized, tenable opposition to the Communist Party of China. In other words, if interviewed about politics, I believe that most people in China deep down inside would say: “Yes, the Communists are not great, but if not them, then who?” A valid concern, indeed. “The Nationalists?” he or she would scoff. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the old rival of Mao, who had always vowed to retake the Mainland, died more than forty years ago. And currently, his Nationalist Party is having enough troubles already running even the tiny island of Taiwan. Hong Kong, the former British colony and once the beacon of democracy on the Mainland, is becoming increasingly irrelevant. It is therefore up to the new generation within China, who perhaps have different opinions on how things should be run than their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, to somehow organize themselves and democratise their country, should they want to.
But for now, as long as there is no viable opposition to the CPC, the Chinese people are, in essence, married off to Xi Jinping. And now, it seems evermore likely, till death do they part.
Matthew Lam is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Despatch Box appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.