Observations of an expat: Xi in Trouble

“We do things better than the West,” is the oft-chanted mantra of the Chinese leadership.

And since Covid emerged from Wuhan the authorities have proudly pointed to their handling of the pandemic as proof of the superiority of the Chinese system as infections and deaths soared in Europe and America while China’s Zero Covid Policy seemed to be keeping a lid on the virus.

That is changing, and the change is threatening President Xi Jinping’s hold on power.

Xi’s problem is that his Zero Covid Policy is making Chinese people think that his cure is worse than the disease.

The policy involves complete lockdown to prevent the spread of infection. In Shanghai recently that meant that China’s commercial hub and the world’s busiest port was shut down.  All 27 million residents were barred from leaving their homes except for medical emergencies.

Babies were separated from their parents. People could not go to the shops to buy food and officials locked people inside their homes. Food and medical supplies were rationed. They were meant to be delivered but too often never appeared.

Shanghai is China’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan city. Its citizens are used to the trappings of Chinese economic success and enjoy a relatively free lifestyle. They objected to the lockdown and the policy behind it.

The Communist Party censored the objections but tech-savvy residents managed to circumvent the Great Firewall of China to post videos on Western social media of people banging pots and pans in protest and displaying banners which read: “I want my freedom back.”

Shanghai is beginning to return to normal, but Beijing and its 22 million inhabitants is heading for the zero policy lockdown. So far this year 373 million Chinese have suffered severe lockdown measures.

The impact on the economy is shocking. The government had forecast growth of 5.5 percent. Independent experts, however, believe that it will be lucky if the economy grows two percent. It is estimated that the pandemic has cost China more than $2.7 trillion.

The Chinese people appear willing to sacrifice some of their personal liberties in exchange for wealth and enough freedom to enjoy it. Xi jinping’s Zero Covid Policy is denying them both.

If Xi was a directly-elected President he would almost certainly be rejected by the voters at the next poll. But he is not. China is a one-party state. Its leader emerges from the ranks of the Communist Party through a series of back room deals involving the senior levels of the party.

When Deng Xiaopeng came to power in 1982 he introduced a limit of two five year terms for the Chinese presidency. In 2018 68-year-old Xi persuaded the Communist Party to lift those limits—paving the way for him to serve a third, fourth and possibly even fifth term.

The main reason for the limitation on the presidential term was to prevent the rise of another Mao-like cult which, according to Deng, led to dictatorial excesses that hampered economic growth and fostered political oppression. The official line for abolishing the term limits is that the period up to 2035 is thought to be crucial to China’s development and thus the distraction of a leadership change should be avoided.

Xi, however, is using the power inherent in unlimited terms by establishing the cult that Deng considered so damaging. Not only has he abolished term limits, but he has concentrated more power in his hands; eliminated potential rivals and is now officially referred as “Lingxiu” or revered father figure. This term was last used by Mao.

In November the 2,980 delegates of the National People’s Congress are due to hold their once every five years session in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The NPC is a rubber stamp parliament that nods through legislation and proposals already agreed by the Communist Party and the congress’s party-controlled Standing Committee.

The proposal to abolish presidential term limits is due to be formally approved during the two-week session. It used to be that all NPC votes were unanimous. For window-dressing purposes that was changed to a majority. But any proposal that receives less than 70 percent support is unofficially in trouble.

Given Xi’s stranglehold on the party machine means that he will almost certainly be officially confirmed in a third term. But there is a growing belief that a number of delegates will take the unprecedented step of abstaining or even voting against the “revered father figure” in protest against his handling of the pandemic. If that happens then Xi’s authority would be seriously undermined and the race is on for a successor figure.

 

 

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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