Editor’s Note: Kerry Brown is a professor of Chinese studies at King’s College London and director of the Lau China Institute. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Leaders in the West have been suspiciously quiet about the expected changes to the Chinese constitution that would remove the two-term limit on the presidency – which would allow President Xi Jinping to rule the country unchallenged for decades to come. Why the silence?
Firstly, most countries that deal with China will have assumed that Xi was here to stay anyway.
They know China is a one-party state, and that the Communist Party holds sway over everything. So unilaterally changing the rules its gives itself would not harm anyone. Most international observers will have been baffled the restriction was ever there in the first place.
But there is also a more pragmatic reason for silence. For all the Western complaints about the parlous state of human rights, in their hearts they know they need a country which is stable and predictable – even if it is a stable and predictable autocracy.
A China that contributed to uncertainty in a world where Donald Trump is US president, the UK is trying to leave the EU, where the Middle East looks like it is perpetually inflamed by unrest, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo seems to be slipping toward yet more civil war would be a truly scary place.
A fifth of humanity could become refugees. The world’s key supply source for so many manufactured goods could be disrupted or shut down. An uncertain China would make the various crises the world faces today look tame.
For Western leaders, it is a simple calculation. Who is better to speak to about dealing with the problem of a nuclearized and threatening North Korea – a Xi Jinping strong enough to be able to maneuver a non-time limited country leadership rule change, or an uncertain, weak Beijing leadership where no one is quite certain who has final say?
For all the West’s unease about a one-party state having such dominance at the moment, because of the stability it gives over such a crucial region, the Communist Party’s total control of China is something Western leaders buy into and support.
Their mouths might say one thing, to appease critical constituencies back home. But their heads know that a China following the path of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s would be a catastrophe.
It would destabilize a region already worryingly febrile because of Pyongyang’s antics, cause economic calamity and add to their woes back at home through impact on capital and goods flows.
Xi Jinping might find surprising sources of opposition within China – groups and people inside and outside the party that we, and he, might not know about. But one thing is almost certain. Western leaders will not be the ones he needs to fear. Strong, stable, predictable leadership in China is key for them. And to achieve this, at least as far as they are concerned, he can rewrite as many parts of the Constitution as he wants.