A third term of power as head of state usually means absolute power. In the case of President Xi Jinping, is it a case of overconcentration of power is the question plaguing China watchers as the new year rolls in.

Xi is considered more powerful than previous Chinese leaders after the 20th Party Congress. He pervades every inch of Chinese society, politics and culture. Even Xi Thought is essential and only curriculum for the cadres of the Chinese Communist Party. Loyalty to Xi equals to loyalty to the party or even the Constitution.

Political commentators and academics are currently researching whether Xi Jinping is taking China back to the years of personal dictatorship after an interlude of decades of collective leadership.

After Mao Zedong died, Chinese leaders wanted a system that would not throw up yet another dictator, ever. In the times of Deng Xiaoping, new leadership rules came into effect, terms of office were fixed, there were limits to terms, a mandatory retirement age, compulsory delegation of authority to the government agencies from the party. The attempt was to decentralize authority.

The practice became an institutional success during the tenues of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Till Xi Jinping arrived. And the system was changed. It was reverted back to the Mao years, especially after the 19th Party Congress when term limits were removed for Xi Jinping and the next Congress bestowed the third term on him.

A well-known researcher, Susan L Shirk, who is research professor in the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Deiogo, writes, explaining the situation: “After Mao Zedong died at the age of 82 in 1976, his successors deliberately crafted a system that they hoped would prevent the rise of another dictator. Mao had turned against other leaders and put the nation at risk through irrational schemes. Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s former comrade-in-arms who had twice been purged by him, did not blame Mao as an individual for the tragic mistakes of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) and the Great Leap Forward (1958–62). Instead, Deng targeted the systemic source of the problem: ‘Over-concentration of power is liable to give rise to arbitrary rule by individuals at the expense of collective leadership’.”

The most important aspect of the post-Mao power reforms was peaceful succession of leadership. The communist party at that time wanted the country and the party to grow out of the period of suspicion and intrigue and conspiracies and herald transparent leadership. They felt peaceful succession of leaders would send the requisite message of commitment to office, duty and accountability.

Successive presidents regularly held meetings of the politburo and the central committee of the party as well as standing committees to show to the people that power was indeed decentralized and politics was becoming routine enough to ward off any dictatorial instincts.

China could show functional democracy to the world at the turn of the century when Jiang Zemin voluntarily retired from the post of CCP general secretary in 2002. Subsequently, he resigned as president in 2003 and military chief in 2004. This was the first time, ever, that the world was witnessing any powerful leader of China volunteering to leave office and without a coup.

Locating Xi Jinping in this context, Shirk analyses: “Yet today, after decades of collective leadership, Xi Jinping is taking China back to personalistic leadership. By the end of his first five-year term, Xi had consolidated greater personal power than Jiang or Hu had ever held. Xi broke precedent by not promoting a successor-in-training at the Nineteenth Party Congress in October 2017. And in March 2018 the National People’s Congress (or NPC, China’s legislature) changed the state constitution to abolish the two-term limit for the president—a clear sign that Xi is planning to stay on beyond 2023.” Indeed, the third term came in due course.

The recent angry protests by the people across China over Xi’s Zero-Covid policy is a crucial development. On the one hand, it indicates the frustration of the people over the adamance of the leadership to force people to remain indoors for months together to keep the virus infections number under control. On the other, it also tells the world that the people’s patience had reached a point of no return and they decided to protest and were ready to face even bullets and jail. But the Xi government did not use violence against them. Rather, it quietly revoked the Zero-Covid policy realizing if retaliated, the people’s anger could even turn against the leadership and Xi in person.

His government’s unpreparedness for the viral infections in China are now being openly criticized by the people in recent weeks. Xi and his advisors must have also realized that the floodgates of dissent can open further if they behave in an authoritarian manner. The protests clearly indicate that Xi Jinping’s authoritarian, personalistic rule is under question.

That brings focus back on the one question that begs an answer: Why have all the rules and democratic practices fail to prevent the rise of Xi the strongman? Those who have observed Xi’s rise say he may have consciously decided to collect all power under his charge because he did not want the Chinese Communist Party to be swept away by liberal thought and people’s pressure as it happened to the communist party in the erstwhile Soviet Union and several countries in Eastern Europe.

Under Xi, the party has systematically usurped all power and authority over military, economy, foreign and domestic policies. Since 2012, and by resolution in 2017 and 2023, the party has declared that it is the superstructure of Chinese society with Xi as the supreme leader. It is tailoring tutorials for students and party cadre alike on how to be loyal only to the party and the president. It insists that personal hardships are the sacrifice people have to make to show their loyalty.

Within the Party, Xi acts as if he is personally in charge of everything. He chairs eight of the leading small groups including the National Security Commission. Xi also handles internal security directly, thereby reducing the chances of a coup. Xi’s hold on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is even more complete than his hold on the CCP and the government.

Even Mao did not have such supreme control over the Chinese military as Xi has today. Not satisfied with the power already amassed, Xi has since taken the new post of commander-in-chief of the PLA Joint Battle Command as well. The para military police are also under Xi’s direct charge.

True to the characteristics of an authoritarian leader, Xi brooks no dissent. He used his first term to quell all dissent, jailing thousands of leaders, critics, would-be rivals and cadres in the name of rooting out corruption. He continued with this anti-corruption – read purge – mission in the second term too so that by the time the 20th Party Congress convened, there was nobody to question him. Nobody has thought to even question him as to why Xi has not named his successor yet. As researchers point out, “Xi has also turned left ideologically, striking fear into intellectuals, journalists, and private businesspeople”. Since 2013, the CCP has “officially banned media and classroom discussion of seven topics associated with Western values that are considered subversive: universalism, press freedom, judicial independence, civil society, citizens’ rights, the historical mistakes of the Party, and cronyism within elite financial and political circles”.11 University professors who are Party members “must defend the CCP in class if anyone criticizes it”. Western textbooks are “banned and being replaced” with new indigenous versions that emphasize Marxism.