Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
This week, Chinese President Xi Jinping joined the planet’s most exclusive club.
It is not for the fainthearted – and once over the threshold, there is rarely any going back. And as some of its former denizens have found, membership can cost more than money can buy.
Yet when China’s Communist Party gave the nod to Xi’s term-free rule of the nation, with it came the dubious honor of admission to Autocrats Anonymous.
It is of course a made-up name, because the clientele is so rarified it would rather not acknowledge the terms of admission: to wield power without recourse to real checks and balances.
China’s last bout of open-ended, one-man rule under Chairman Mao Zedong did not end well for his people. It has taken decades of party rule to turn China into the powerhouse it is today.
Others around the world have similarly banjaxed state institutions in the way that Mao did, tying them in red tape, leaving them holding their offices and little else.
Over the past two decades, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has delivered a master class in playing the system for himself.
Like Xi, his problem is term limits. But he switched presidency with the compliant prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, for one term and is now on the threshold of his fourth presidency – plus one spot as prime marionetteer as prime minister.
How he handles his next incarnation as leader that falls due in 2024 is still anyone’s guess. But as he has used his years in power to gather all the strings controlling Russia’s media, he likely has what he needs to pull off winning ultimate control of his country’s destiny again.
Putin’s access to the club looks a little messy next to Xi. But then neither man seems to care, which appears to be a trend of recent arrivals.
Take President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. His party denies his unfettered grip on power, but his path to get it has made it all too obvious for all but the most blinkered observer.
Elections three years ago saw his party lose its majority – partly to new voting regulations that allowed a secular Kurdish party attractive to liberal Turks to stand. They did well.
It wasn’t long before Erdogan, then Prime Minister, oversaw a reignition of hostilities with Kurds, and shortly after that came new elections. The Kurdish secular party sank, and Erdogan emerged with a majority.
Not satisfied with that, he set about taking control of the media, replacing ministers and stacking his government until he could run for President – a previously powerless position – and take the Prime Minister’s powers with him.
So what is it these men want? Perhaps, like President Donald Trump, they want to be listened to and not criticized?
But as we are witnessing, democracy is not dead in the US and Trump is trapped by the strictures and limits of the president’s office.
In the case of Putin – who allegedly runs Russia like a business – there is the obvious pursuit of wealth and perhaps a smattering of vanity.
Russia likes a strongman, and Putin likes being that man. But for how long? How will it end and how will he be remembered?
A cautionary tale for any member of the club is the fate of the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. He joined in 1967, the heyday of hippie love.
He partied hard, ran his country and his people into the ground, and was killed by his own gun, dragged from where he was skulking on the run in a storm drain.
As Xi has only just arrived, he perhaps has the early confidence of the newly arrived.
Russia – and for that matter Putin – are not the danger to China they once were. Although just like China, Russia is an enormous land mass; it has barely one-tenth of China’s 1.4 billion population. Its army is struggling against underfunding and decline versus China’s rising military machine. And its economy has been emasculated by sanctions, cronyism and corruption. It is simply no match for China’s wealth.
Even so, Xi may catch glimpses of ghosts scattering before him as he enters the club. The shadow of Saddam Hussein perhaps slinking down a darkened corridor. After decades as a barbarous dictator, he met his end in a hangman’s noose.
Perhaps Xi sees Hussein in conversation with his contemporary, the murderous and now-deceased Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, who handed his blood-soaked membership to his son Bashar al-Assad.
Admission through birth is an increasing rarity these days. It has died over the millennia with the empires that flourished under despots, then faded under conquest.
Arguably the club is slowly evolving, upgrading its image. Today’s autocrat is not always a barbarous villain.
Another relative newcomer hoping to break the old autocrat mold is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Technically speaking his father, King Salman, is still the card-carrying member in the family, but few doubt when the crown comes to him, so will access to the club.
So far his autocratic style has been relatively smooth for Saudis, albeit unorthodox for outsiders.
Locking up his own family members in a corruption shakedown at a five-star hotel isn’t democracy as we know it, but most of them were able to walk away, tribal dignity and honor intact.
His vision for his country, opening it up, emancipating women and putting pride and nationalism ahead of religion won’t silence all his critics but may offer the autocrats’ club a slightly different playbook. At 32, he has a long way to go.
At the other end of the scale is former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, an old-school autocrat who has recently been forced to cash his chips and check out of the club.
So far he has walked away without paying his butcher’s bill, but it may yet come due and fall on his head.
For mere mortals like us, the attraction of the club perhaps needs no better explanation than this, the words I imagine are inscribed above its door.
“Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely – enter and enjoy.”