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Xi Jinping: Rising Dictator or Another East Asian Strongman?

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China Power

Xi Jinping: Rising Dictator or Another East Asian Strongman?

Making sense of Xi’s likely extended stay in power by looking at other long-term or strong-handed regional leaders.

Xi Jinping: Rising Dictator or Another East Asian Strongman?
Credit: DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro

There has been much debate over the planned amendment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) constitution, allowing the president and vice president to serve more than two terms in office. Journalists, think tanks, and politicians have widely made negative statements about this seeming seizure of power by President Xi Jinping. Several have even characterized it as an outright “power grab” by Xi to ensure total dictatorial control over the Asian giant.

Xi’s extended or even eternal term as president can be seen as a classic move for any autocratic leader or would-be dictator.

Xi has elevated his position in power since 2013 by drafting the resolution for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s Third Plenum and heading the group for reforming Party policy, the “Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms.” These steps marginalized the role of the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, who would typically lead these conferences and teams. Xi thus increased his role over China’s economic policy.

At the recent 19th National Congress of the CCP, Xi not only presented no new successor for himself, but also launched “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” Although previous Chinese leaders like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping issued such nationwide policies branded with their own names, Xi’s political theory is centered on increasing the Party’s control throughout China and shaping China into an assertive world power. In a related move, Xi also asserted strong control over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), purging disloyal PLA generals and placing himself in charge of key PLA and military departments.

Internally, Xi has also tightened his grip on information flows, for example by increasing internet restrictions and arresting citizens promoting anti-CCP ideology. These are all characteristics of a rising dictator aiming to remove his opposition and reassert total control over the country.

From another angle, Xi’s power grab could just be the rise of yet another unique East Asian strongman. I do not mean a ruthless leader who desires merely control and has no concerns for the people or the nation. Instead, I am referring to the model of long-standing rulers who may not have governed via Western-style standards but have improved their country’s economy and the citizens’ standard of living. Examples of such autocratic yet visionary leaders include South Korea’s Park Chung-hee, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Indonesia’s Suharto.

South Korea’s Park, despite gaining power through a military coup and imposing strict regulations, propelled South Korea to middle-income status through state intervention. Similarly, Suharto removed colleagues whom he disliked, yet,he brought in foreign-trained economists and encouraged investment in parts of the economy, thus increasing Indonesia’s growth.

The most successful strongman of East Asia was, without doubt, Lee Kuan Yew. Although he was harsh on critics and stayed in power for more than 30 years, he transformed Singapore into a prosperous city-state with a GDP that rivals many Western industrialized nations. Lee also shaped the country’s civil service, removing corruption and instilling good governance throughout all sectors. Lee’s success in economic development and governance resulted in other developing countries aiming to follow the “Singapore model.”

There are commonalities between the actions of these East Asian strongmen and Xi. When Xi became general secretary of the CCP in 2012, he launched the idea of the “China Dream,” a plan to transform China into a fully developed country by 2049 and turn the country into a civilized and cultured nation. This large vision has an element of sustainable development, aiming for Chinese cities to not only be economically prosperous, but also clear of heavy pollution, allowing citizens to live in a sustainable environment. This plan was linked to the wider 12th Five Year Plan, which placed heavy emphasis on reducing inequality and improving social safety nets. The 12th Five Year plan further called for sustainable energy sources such as hydropower plants, more research and development in coastal regions, and higher foreign investment in agricultural and environmental protection. The more recent 13th Five Year Plan continued this emphasis on environmental concerns, as well as further economic integration between major cities and further economic development across specific sectors.

Under Xi, China’s growth rate in 2017 was the fastest in two years, and, as a Financial Times article noted, its “ratio of debt to GDP fell for the first time since 2011” last year. Xi has also proposed institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which not only benefit Asian aid recipients but also share China’s developmental model with them.

Despite this economic growth model, Xi still may not be destined to sit among the unique set of East Asian strongmen mentioned above, especially Lee Kuan Yew, whom he and other Chinese leaders greatly admired.

First, Xi’s economic record isn’t that stellar. China’s overall growth during his first term in power wasn’t as high as under his predecessors — and his main economic reform in 2012 was to increase state ownership over firms. This was in order to ensure firms followed his ideology and CCP rules.

Second, Xi may have initiated anti-corruption measures in 2012; however, those purges were mostly aimed at political opponents and can be easily cast as moves to strengthen his position.

Xi may have aimed to improve trade links through his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but it can be argued that the BRI is more about increasing China’s position as an Asian and global power and aiming to instill Chinese ideas in participants than boosting prosperity abroad. Most significantly, unlike the strongmen listed above, China under Xi has pursued a highly aggressive foreign policy in the South China Sea, staking claims over disputed islands and building artificial reefs to house troops and military equipment and harassing ships that approach its new island fortresses.

How then can we can we classify Xi Jinping’s latest political power grab? Xi is no Pol Pot aiming for ultimate control. He’s certainly not the next Kim Jong-un or even a copycat Mao Zedong, leading China backwards while enforcing ideology on the people. Perhaps Xi is an even more unique type of East Asian strongman, one destined to hold political power for a long term and shape internal culture toward his (or rather the Party’s) views. He may not be the most benevolent president in terms of domestic or foreign policy (especially in the South China Sea), but he’s no rising dictator who places self above nation.

Li Jie Sheng is a freelance research analyst and writer with interests in Southeast Asian political economy, wider global political economy, multilateral organizations, and international development.