Each year for a week or two in March, as China ushers in spring, residents of Beijing experience an annual seasonal quirk, sometimes witnessed in only small and subtle ways. A constant and unflinching military presence at subway stations, complications with using temporary accommodation like Airbnb, extreme mass censoring of social media and the limiting of large congregations of people. Although never publicised, these slight intrusions to the every day routine are often justified for ostensibly unrelated reasons, or what are termed ‘external factors’.
In reality, these ‘factors’ actually relate to the annual ‘two sessions’, which bring together China’s parliament and political advisory body to affirm the leadership mandate and annual plans of the Communist Party of China (CPC). This year’s two sessions encouraged especially stringent censorship, having seen the introduction of changes that have entirely changed the organisational chart of government and policy action in China.
Foremost amongst these has been changes to the Chinese constitution that has seen presidential limits scrapped, allowing for President Xi Jinping’s continuation in the role beyond his initially predicted departure date of 2022. While plenty of international media and academic punditry have commented on the changes themselves in great detail, three observations can give insight into what can be expected of the Chinese government in years to come.
一 The changes were not predicted
Since the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, where Xi failed to anoint a successor for 2022, commentators speculated this meant that Xi would bypass the established norm of the ten-year tenure initiated by Deng Xiaoping. Despite this punditry, it is notable that the constitutional changes, announced on a Sunday afternoon, left all reeling.
While plenty have commented on the potential reasons for such an unexpected announcement, ultimately this makes starkly clear again what it doesn’t pay to promote: no one can predict China. While there are some commentators who have followed China and its leaders for decades and have as much knowledge as may be able to be garnered about the inner sanctum of Zhongnanhai, ultimately, predicting the direction of Chinese leadership is still a guessing game.
China increasingly seeks to be seen as a bastion of stability in a period of global uncertainty but ultimately, the world can only hope for stability from a country it has no real ability to influence or predict.
二 The international community has been largely silent
In the middle of last year Liu Xiaobo, 61-year old Nobel Peace Prize laureate and political reform activist, passed away in a Chinese jail.
In 2010, when Liu was barred from traveling to accept the Nobel prize, politicians and governments around the world strongly condemned the Chinese government. China reiterated that others did not have the right to ‘meddle internally’ in their domestic affairs, and promptly severed all diplomatic relations with Norway.
Several years on, and with the PRC now a distinctly more powerful country, the international silence that met the news of Liu's death is telling.
Similarly, the constitutional changes that guarantee a movement away from ‘rule of law’ in China have not sparked any major international criticism. This speaks to the changes Xi’s rule and China’s broader development has had on the rest of the world’s engagement with China.
Xi’s authoritarian crackdown on groups such as international non-governmental organisations and public interest lawyers show no sign of slowing. Where international criticism was once a rallying cry for some marginalised groups in China, it seems that this may now be a thing of the past.
Trump may have joked that he wished he could do as Xi did in America, but the reality is that many countries are now so economically dependent on China that kow-towing will only increase.
三 The constitutional change is only one of many
While Western media has enjoyed being able to write the story of the self-proclaimed dictator whose reign will now never end, there has been little commentary on major changes planned for the whole apparatus of CPC and government structures. These will have long-lasting effects into the future and across China.
Ministries amalgamated and the gutting of the National Development and Reform Commission (who up to this point has been instrumental in the driving of China’s development) are at the heart of these changes.
David Kelly, director of research at Beijing-based research and strategic advisory, China Policy, says: “this massive remapping and retooling of the bureaucracy is both a clear extension of unified Party oversight of government functions, and a bid to streamline and upgrade policy implementation in the face of pressing challenges.”
However these two themes fit together, it is unlikely to be painless.”
Peering beyond the goal post of becoming a ‘moderately prosperous society’ by the centenary of the CPC in 2021, it is hard to predict how long Xi will remain in power and what further changes he will make to a political system striving to remain relevant. In the meantime though, Xi’s China Dream is fast becoming reality.
Chloe Dempsey is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.