Chinese Commentators Take Aim at Xi Jinping's Unlimited Presidency, Lack of Reform

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Chinese President Xi Jinping symbolically leaves his hand prints in wet clay, during the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 26, 2018.
Chinese President Xi Jinping symbolically leaves his hand prints in wet clay, during the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 26, 2018.
AP Photo

Top intellectual Xu Zhangrun has become the voice of a growing chorus of liberal dissent against President Xi Jinping's indefinite second term in office, nodded through by China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), in March.

Xu, who is a professor in constitutional law at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University, hit out at Xi in an article published last week.

Titled "Hopes and Fears Under Our Party," the article warns against the dismantling of economic reforms brought in by late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping in the wake of Chairman Mao Zedong's disastrous Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

While it doesn't mention the notoriously sensitive president by name, Xu's article hits out at the "comprehensive resuscitation of totalitarian politics," and calls for presidential term-limits to be reinstated.

"After 40 years of reform, suddenly we are back to the ancien régime," Xu writes.

Xu's broadside comes amid a groundswell of political opposition to Xi's supreme control of almost every area of Chinese political life, and is likely fueled by a trade war with the United States, analysts told RFA.

International relations expert Zi Zhongyun has also hit out at the Xi administration's failure to continue the work of reform, saying it is largely to blame for the current impasse in trade negotiations with the United States.

And economist He Jiangbing recently also hit out at the "mishandling" of the economy resulting in the bursting of property bubbles in Nanjing, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Hefei, Wuhan, Zhengzhou and Shanghai this summer.

Using imagery of flood control that has been historically associated with threats to dynastic power, He warned in an article that "the consequences of mishandling it will be disastrous."

Xu, who is currently a visiting scholar in Japan, has said he is currently unavailable for media interviews.

Bao Tong, a former top aide to late reformist premier Zhao Ziyang, said he hopes Xu doesn't suffer a political backlash for his criticism.

"I hope he doesn't get any trouble from Tsinghua University as a result," Bao said in a recent interview with RFA. "I agree with his suggestion that we should reinstate presidential term limits."

"The abolition of term-limits for national leaders was a retrograde step," he said.

Toeing the line

There has also been considerable push-back in public over growing attempts by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to paint only a positive picture of China, and delete, censor or retaliate against any form of utterance that doesn't toe the party line in public.

Liu Yadong, editor-in-chief of Science and Technology Daily, gave a speech last month in which he warned against overstating China's technological achievements, which he said relied on those of other countries.

"Liu's speech is representative of a domestic introspection on China's capability, triggered by the Sino-U.S. trade war and Washington's ban on China's telecommunication giant ZTE," the tabloid Global Times newspaper said in an op-ed in June.

"A technology insider criticizing the exaggeration of China's technological achievements comes at just the right time," it said.

The paper, which has close ties to Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, recently also hit out at Chairman Mao's designated successor Hua Guofeng for "encouraging a cult of personality," a charge that is increasingly being leveled at Xi Jinping.

Retired Shandong University lecturer and rights activist Sun Wenguang said Xi's emphasis on positive propaganda is highly reminiscent of the party under Mao during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962).

"All of the media and newspapers are going all out to praise China's amazing achievements, and there is a great deal of fake information hidden in amongst that," Sun told RFA. "China's achievements are actually pretty limited, and there are plenty of areas in which it lags far behind other countries."

"But the Chinese media just covers all of that up."

Constitutional scholar Zhang Lifan said the implied public criticism of the Xi administration may not develop into a serious political challenge to the president, however.

"My feeling is that the political opposition hasn't yet gathered that sort of momentum," Zhang said. "A lot of [potential opponents] have families who have been labeled as corrupt, so I think people are looking around to see who's going to be the first to stick their head above the parapet."

"I don't think we've got to the point where a sudden political incident could take place yet," he said.

Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.





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