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First Putin, now Xi Jinping: how unlimited power became the ‘in’ thing

If you were to cast your mind back to the finest music of 2002, it’s unlikely that the first thing to come to mind would be a Russian chart topper. That year, a song titled ‘A Man Like Putin”, in which a Russian girl-band sang about how they wanted a man like Vladimir Putin, dominated the Russian charts. Unsurprisingly, it propelled the band to worldwide fame. However, it was also part of a more menacing process – the consolidation of Putin’s control, from which an insidious cult began to develop. Fifteen years on, and Putin is still in power; his cult fully fledged, and it seems likely that he will remain in office for the foreseeable future. 

Not since Mao has a living leader had their “thoughts” incorporated into the Chinese Constitution

While many in the West are dismayed by this, the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, is inspired by Putin’s leadership model. Xi had already been granted a rank equal to that of Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping, bestowing a level of authority upon him that makes him head of the Party, the military, and the state. But last week, at the 19th National Congress, his power reached new heights. The “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” was unanimously voted into the constitution.  

This catchy title is of crucial significance, as not since Mao has a living leader had their “thoughts” incorporated into the Chinese Constitution. A clear demarcation that one-man rule of China had come to an end was the lack of ideological contributions under the names of Chinese leaders. Xi’s intentions, then, are clear from this break with convention, and they are strikingly ominous. 

Technically, the phenomenon of a one-man cult is banned. However, in a country that masquerades a one-party state as a democracy, this is hardly an insurmountable barrier to overcome. That no obvious successor to Xi has been announced, either through appointments to the Politburo, or by Xi himself, confirms that he could remain in power for as long as his physical health and mental faculties permit him to. Much like Vladimir Putin, he sees his tenure in office as a position of indefinite length. 

Although corruption has been reduced as part of President Xi’s anti-corruption programme, more importantly, it has acted as a purge of the Communist Party

If the West is appalled at Xi’s actions, it is certainly doing a good job of concealing its feelings. This National Congress, however, was more of a subtly symbolic coronation for Xi. The most strenuous part of his process of consolidating power has already been completed under the guise of an anti-corruption programme. Although corruption, which was one of the most pressing problems that faced Xi when he took on the leadership of the country, has been reduced in some ways, more importantly, it has acted as a purge of the Communist Party, removing those people or factions who might block Xi from remaining in office longer than his recent predecessors. 

A well-known example of this came four years ago, when Bo Xilai, a rising star of the party, was publicly destroyed. His wife, a successful businesswoman, was embroiled in a murder investigation; his son was accused of extreme Western decadence during his studies at Oxford; and he, ultimately, was arrested on corruption charges, given a mere show trial and then sentenced to life imprisonment. Such an act brings to mind Stalin’s rise to power, in which both factions of the left and right of the Party were gradually neutered as political threats through sham trials. If this precedent does not set alarm bells ringing, then Western leaders need to start paying more attention to internal Chinese politics. 

The current vacuum in world leadership left by Trump’s America has been gratefully filled by Xi’s China, which now seeks to lead the way in tackling issues of globalisation and climate change. Xi sees this moment as “a new historic juncture in China’s development”. A country that has never been further from embodying a genuine democracy should not be setting the tone and direction of world politics as a global leader. Whether this, or apparent Western ambivalence towards this new reality, is more concerning, is difficult to say. 

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