Xi Jinping’s alarming power grab

China’s president will ditch limits on how long he can stay in power. Matthew Partridge reports.


Xi Jingping: he's here to stay
(Image credit: Copyright (c) 2017 Shutterstock. No use without permission.)

"China is on the march and there is no doubt as to who is at the head of the parade," says The Times. By abolishing term limits that would have forced him to retire in 2023, President Xi Jinping "is positioning himself to become a leader-for-life, the most powerful man in the world's second largest economy". He could in theory overtake Mao Zedong, who "ruled for almost three decades". This "power grab" is a concern: "a prime strategic challenger to the West appears to be hurtling towards unassailable autocratic rule".

Not so long ago a Chinese leader behaving in this way would have attracted "international condemnation for bucking the global trend toward greater democracy", says Steven Lee Myers in The New York Times. Today, it seems "fully in keeping" with the global "tilt toward authoritarian governance", which already exists in countries including Russia, Egypt and Turkey and is "reappearing in places like Hungary and Poland". Even in the US, critics are concerned by Donald Trump's "populist appeals", aversion to the press, "traditional checks on power" and stated admiration for certain strongmen.

Still, "anyone who didn't see this surprise' coming needs to have her or his China-watcher eyeglass prescription carefully re-examined," says Tom Plate in the South China Morning Post. But while the Western reaction is edging towards the "semi-hysterical", it's important to recognise that, "in Asia, the ideological evil of authoritarianism is not universally accepted". Neither Singapore nor Malaysia seem "to have been crippled by strong-armed leaders" over the years.

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Singapore's founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, "left behind a country that is a contemporary gold standard for governance". Westerners should also note that the "axiomatic belief in the superiority of [America's] government is not at an all-time high" and this is not entirely due to Trump's "burlesque of a government". The Chinese premier will "not be judged by how long he stays but how well China does while he is at the top".

Nevertheless, "in the end, democracy, for all its flaws and shortcomings, is a safety valve for society when things become frustrating or go wrong and something always goes wrong", says James Stavridis on Bloomberg. While Chinese growth is still strong for now, "what will happen when internal pressures grow and there is no mechanism to change leaders?" Indeed, the risk is that if things do start to go badly, Xi "may be inclined to create external threats to maintain his own popularity".

Europe holds its breath as Italy votes

"On 4 March, Italians will vote in a general election widely regarded as the most important in Europe this year and the one with the greatest potential for tipping the eurozone back into crisis," says The Economist. Two of the main parties, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the right-wing populist Northern League, which is part of a broader alliance forged by the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, are "sceptical about the single currency".

As for Berlusconi, despite being written off as a "political relic", he has "manoeuvred himself back into the spotlight with a veteran's ability", promising "big raises in pensions, a guaranteed minimum income of $1,250 a month for working-age adults, a steep tax cut and tough measures against economic migrants", says Michael Birnbaum in The Washington Post.

The irony is that Berlusconi now seems like a moderate candidate compared with the eurosceptic, populist M5S. And while Berlusconi himself cannot become premier due to a conviction for tax fraud, he is likely to play a role as kingmaker, says James Politi in the Financial Times. One option is a centre-right coalition that comprises Berlusconi's Forza Italia, the Northern League and the far-right and equally eurosceptic Brothers of Italy.

Another is "a grand coalition, or national unity government, of centrist political forces including both the Democratic Party and Silvio Berlusconi". Whatever the outcome, M5S, polling at around 28%, "will probably hold greater sway over Italian political life than it has so far".

It's no surprise that the Italian far right "now finds itself in a sweet spot", says Anna Isaac in The Daily Telegraph. Despite a "cyclical upswing", Italy's "economic recovery has been extremely slow". As a result, anti-immigration feeling is at "fever pitch", hostility towards the banking sector "remains fierce" and "a growing resentment of the European Union" is leading to talk of "Italexit".

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri