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Xi Jinping and the end of China’s term limits

This article originally appeared in China Policy Institute: Analysis.

The 1982 amendments to the constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) indicated that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had set upon a path to evolve from a party of revolution to one of governance. This was the difficult mission led by Deng Xiaoping, following the death and destruction wrought by the decade-long Cultural Revolution and the excesses of Mao’s cult of personality.

China needed stability in order to recover from the chaos and tragedy enacted under Mao’s rule. The Party agreed to build strong institutions and introduce a so-called ‘collective leadership’ system to ensure this stability and prevent the the concentration of power in any one individual.

The 1982 constitutional amendments reinstated the then-defunct position of President (or ‘State Chairman’) and mandated a limit of two consecutive, five-year terms for the President, Vice President and National People’s Congress (NPC) members. This encouraged incumbent leaders to groom protégés to take up the mantle after their time was up.

China’s internal politics is notoriously opaque. Nevertheless, for more than three decades Sinologists and scholars relied on these conventions for clues into the CCP’s machinations. Such assumptions have now completely eroded with the CCP’s proposal, announced on 25 February, to remove the term limit clause from the constitution.

A couple of hours before state news agency Xinhua broke the news, it ran this brief article:

Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, stressed the important role of the Constitution.

‘No organization or individual has the power to overstep the Constitution or the law,’ Xi said on Saturday when presiding over a group study session of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee.

But Party leaders would not be ‘overstepping’ if they act within the re-written rules.

When the elimination of the term limit clause is considered in conjunction with other proposed constitutional amendments, it is clear the Party is making institutional changes to cement its control over all aspects of state decision-making.

Continue reading “Xi Jinping and the end of China’s term limits”

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Students of Mandarin: Dare to take the plunge

This article originally appeared in the December edition of China Matters’  YP Stance.

Chinese international students in Australian universities have come under the spotlight in recent months. This is not surprising; there are more than 131,000 university students from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Australia, accounting for almost 40 per cent of all international students in the higher education sector.

At the same time, student mobility from Australia to the PRC is almost completely absent from public discussion. The numbers are stark: there are 4,796 Australian students in the PRC, or just over one per cent of international students there. Furthermore, while the total number of Australians studying in the PRC has increased, the majority stay for less than six months.

In order to improve Australians’ grasp of Chinese language and understanding of the PRC’s influence in our region, students need to be spending more time in the PRC and enrol in Chinese- rather than English-taught programs. To facilitate this, both the tertiary education sector and the federal government should provide greater incentives for students to take part in these longer programs.

Research by the Australian Department of Education shows that the PRC is the second most popular destination for Australian university exchange and study abroad students. Additionally, while the numbers have fluctuated over recent years, there has generally been an upward trajectory (see figure 1).

Figure 1

However, the number of students in longer programs has stagnated (see figure 2). According to the most recent data from the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, of Australians studying in the PRC in 2016, 69 per cent stayed less than six months.

Figure 2

There are several problems with shorter-term stays. Most participants in short-term Chinese language immersion programs engage more on a day-to-day basis with their foreign classmates than with local Chinese students. Chinese universities usually offer separate accommodation for international students. Thus, while the classroom experience might be immersive, the social environment outside the classroom often dilutes linguistic and cultural engagement.

Continue reading “Students of Mandarin: Dare to take the plunge”

Xi, Orwell and the language of Chinese politics

This piece originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter.

The 19th Party Congress closed earlier this week with the announcement that ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ would be enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) charter. This eponymous ideological contribution is the first since ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’ was posthumously written into the charter in 1997, and the only ‘Thought’ since ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ was introduced as the CCP’s guiding ideology in 1945.

Even before this announcement, commentators were drawing comparisons between Xi and Mao. Australian scholar Geremie Barmé calls Xi the ‘Chairman of Everything’. Since early last year, such allusions have become popular, especially following Xi’s designation as the Party’s ‘Core Leader’ in March. Xi’s anti-corruption drive, which some argue is being used to consolidate his personal power by purging rivals, is also reminiscent of Mao’s campaigns.

An official state media release suggests that the Party charter will not shorten Xi’s contribution to the more pithy ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ in the same vein as ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ or ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’, but maintain its full, somewhat awkward title. This is a small but significant detail.

1024px-Opening_ceremony_of_19th_National_Congress_of_the_Communist_Party_of_China_(VOA)
Opening ceremony of the 19th National Congress of the CCP. Photo by Voice of America (Wikimedia Commons, 2017).

George Orwell wrote in his essay ‘Politics and the English language’ that ‘political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. In political language, Orwell said, ‘one almost never finds a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech’. This is especially true of the CCP’s carefully cultivated and scripted political language.

All political movements and institutions face decisions of continuity and change. The CCP leadership understands that at certain times it must change, or at least be seen to be doing so, in order to continue to rule. Evolution rather than revolution has been a bastion of China’s political life since Deng Xiaoping took the helm. The CCP’s political language is instrumental – it enables those in power to take ownership of certain ideas in order to increase their potency, and justify the Party’s continuity and change. Thus, each generation of leaders espouses a ‘new’ ideology, which is in fact simply an extension of and improvement upon their predecessors’.

For all Party leaders since Deng Xiaoping, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ has been the guiding light.

Continue reading “Xi, Orwell and the language of Chinese politics”

19th Party Congress: Comments

On 18 October the Chinese Communist Party began its weeklong, quinquennial Party Congress.

My comments to the Agence-France Presse (AFP) appeared in SBS News.

But Xi may lobby to retain his 69-year-old right-hand man Wang Qishan, who heads the leader’s signature anti-graft campaign. This would create a precedent for Xi himself to remain in charge beyond retirement age in 2022.

“If Xi expresses intent to lead beyond his 10-year limit, this would be reminiscent of the Mao era, which would be damaging to Xi’s legacy and call his legitimacy into question,” said Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, a Sydney-based researcher and co-author of China and the New Maoists.

Sun Zhengcai under investigation: Comments

On 24 July China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection officially announced that former Chongqing Party Chief Sun Zhengcai has been placed under investigation for ‘serious discipline violation’.

My comments to the Agence-France Presse (AFP) appeared in the Daily Mail.

Sun, who had kept a low profile, had even been touted as Xi’s potential successor, said Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, a Sydney-based researcher and co-author of “China and the New Maoists”.

“His downfall signals a growing sense of insecurity among Xi and his followers,” van Nieuwenhuizen told AFP.

While the exact reasons for his fall are unknown, “we do know however that Sun had been promoted as a protege of Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao,” she said.

“Xi could therefore consider Sun a threat to his own agenda and political ambitions; other proteges of Hu have also previously been held back from seeking higher positions under Xi.”

Review of China and the New Maoists in the LSE Review of Books

The LSE Review of Books has published a review of China and the New Maoists.

In the near future, although Mao’s memory will fade, he will continue to play an important role in China’s politics, society and intellectual thought. He will continue to evince different memories from people – some consider him an ideologue, others as the strongest nationalist leader that China has had and others as an activist and a guerrilla leader. He will continue to perturb the CCP and its leadership because they will not be able to bury his influence and will be wary that his supporters do not grab power again. He will continue to frustrate his followers because they will be unable to bring his ideology into the mainstream.

Review of China and the New Maoists in the Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal has published a review of my book with Kerry Brown, China and the New Maoists.

In “China and the New Maoists,” Kerry Brown, a scholar at Chatham House in London, and Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, of the University of Sydney, don’t mince words. “As an economist, Mao was wholly ineffective,” they write, “sponsoring ludicrous programmes that chased after ideals like complete central state control of the economy and comprehensive plans that resulted in colossal inefficiency, the breakdown of the supplies of the most basic food and commodities, and entrenched poverty.” Even so, the authors observe, Mao has not lost his iconic status in China. The result is a kind of double-think in which past crimes are glossed over for the sake of national continuity. Since Mao’s death, they note, the Communist Party of China has officially claimed that Mao was right “70% of the time” and wrong “30% of the time.”