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China might make Xi Jinping president for life. What does that mean for the U.S.?

Chinese President Xi Jinping may never have to leave office under a proposal to amend the country’s constitution in order to abolish the two-term limit on the office of the president. Christopher Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies sits down with William Brangham to discuss what this means for China and the U.S.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    China's ruling Communist Party proposed Sunday to remove term limits on the office of president. That means Xi Jinping, who heads the party and the military, may never have to leave office.

    As William Brangham tells us now, it sets Xi up to be the most powerful leader of China since Mao Zedong.

  • William Brangham:

    The surprise proposal to amend China's constitution would eliminate the current limit of two terms for China's presidents. That limit was designed to avoid a cult of personality developing, similar what grew around Mao Zedong, the founder of the modern Chinese state.

    With us now to unpack what this means for China, the U.S., and the wider world is Christopher Johnson. He served as a top China analyst at the CIA, and he's now the Freeman chair in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

    Welcome.

  • Christopher Johnson:

    Thanks. Glad to be here.

  • William Brangham:

    How significant a move is this in China?

  • Christopher Johnson:

    I think it's very significant.

    Basically, what we see here is an upending of 30 years of practice in the Chinese system and overturning really the legacy of Deng Xiaoping, the last great paramount leader, who really was in charge, as you pointed out, of deconstructing the dangerous setup that happened under Mao Zedong.

  • William Brangham:

    You were saying earlier that this move confirms some of the worst fears we have about Xi. What are those worst fears? What could we see with this?

  • Christopher Johnson:

    I think it confirms a lot of worst fears of a lot of people in the system, which were that he is a power-mad megalomaniac like Mao and in fact is not the pragmatist that he has often sort of been portrayed as.

    I actually think the jury is still out on that and we will have to see. The key question really, of course, is, he has got all the power now, so what is he going to do with it? And there's really two choices. On the economy, for example, he can take on the tough reforms and make the economy more open, or he can move toward the status model that we have seen increasingly under his leadership, which has been a real problem, especially in trade relations with the United States.

  • William Brangham:

    You said the jury is still out. What do you think? Which direction do you think? Will we see more liberal, so-called liberal reformists, or the opposite?

  • Christopher Johnson:

    My own sense is, in this case, probably the past will be prologue, and the last five years that we have seen, which has been towards a more repressive state-oriented system, will be the direction of travel.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you think the U.S. is ready and able to handle a surging China economically, politically?

  • Christopher Johnson:

    I think we certainly have the tools.

    One of the things that's interesting, for example, right now, we're about to enter some dicey territory with the Chinese on trade. I think there is a general view in the administration, which I would agree with, that we have a lot of leverage in this.

    But we also have to understand, what is it that we want from China out of this in terms of making a more free trade and fair environment for us? I'm not sure we have a plan and a strategy for that. So, the real story here is, it's very clear with Xi Jinping's latest move here that he's going to be around for a while. He has a plan. We need to get a plan.

  • William Brangham:

    We tend to think of China as a one-party state, but there are some people who are not Xi acolytes in China.

  • Christopher Johnson:

    That's true.

  • William Brangham:

    Do those people have the interest and/or the authority to challenge any of this?

  • Christopher Johnson:

    What has been striking about it actually is really since he came into power and started attacking a lot of the people who actually put him in power, I think there was a general sense, for those us who have watched the system for a long time, this is going to create an immune response of some sort.

    I think really what we have seen instead is through what I call political shock and awe, he has so outmaneuvered these people in the system that there is really nothing they can do about it. And we don't really see any visible signs of opposition. And probably the key area where we see this is his taming of the military, which, of course, in the past has been sort of a tool within the system for changing leaderships.

  • William Brangham:

    Taming of the military, meaning they are now completely responsive just to him and not independent on their own?

  • Christopher Johnson:

    They largely seem to be.

    Historically, the role in the military in the system has been both to defend China, but also to defend the party and keep it in power, as we saw during the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. And, therefore, they have always been a political actor within the system.

    Through a vigorous anti-corruption campaign and changes to their force structure, he's really brought them under his control.

  • William Brangham:

    A lot of the talk about Xi is his desire to return China to its greatness of the past.

  • Christopher Johnson:

    Correct.

  • William Brangham:

    In the 21st century, what does that mean today? What does China's return to greatness mean today?

  • Christopher Johnson:

    I think, first and foremost, it's returning China to a power, a position of hegemony in Asia. And whatever broader global power aspirations, we will have to see.

    But it's really also increasingly under Xi Jinping's leadership a desire to show China has indeed discovered what we might call a third way between communism and capitalism, a state-led capitalist system that actually works for them and delivers results.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Chris Johnson, thank you very much.

  • Christopher Johnson:

    Thank you. Nice to be here.

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