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National People’s Congress of China re-elected President Xi Jinping to a second term and abolished term limits on the presidency. There were very little dissent allowed resisting the decision, but one critic, intellectual Li Datong wrote an open letter challenging the decision, says China scholar, professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

China concluded its annual National People’s Congress on Tuesday. Normally the 16-day National People’s Congress, which is China’s legislature, is a routine affair. This time, however, it took many momentous decisions. For example, it abolished the two-term limit on the presidency. It strengthened anti-corruption institutions. It established a more powerful environmental regulatory body. And it reelected Xi Jinping to a second term. Also, President Xi Jinping’s closing remarks struck a national chord, addressing issues such as China’s claim over Hong Kong and Taiwan. Some analysts say that Xi Jinping is now China’s most powerful ruler since the days of Mao Tse tung..

Joining me now to analyze the Congress is Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom. He is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine. His book, “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know,” co-authored with Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. Jeffrey, thank you so much for joining us today.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: It’s good to be back on the show.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Jeffrey, the New York Times likened this year’s National People’s Congress to a coronation of Xi Jinping. Would you agree with this assessment?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Well, I think there’s some relevance to it. It is conferring on him a very grand position. It sort of finishes off a process that’s been going on for some time. Since he took power in 2012 he became head of the Chinese Communist Party, and that’s really where his power largely comes from. He also then early in 2013 took on the title of President, which is an important symbolic role but it really, the real power comes from heading the party. And then he gathered a lot of other titles, to the point where Australia and China specialist Geremie Barme began calling him the chairman of everything, because it is too hard to keep track of all the things he was in charge of.

And so there’s been a maximising of his power going on, but then this added a kind of imperial flourish to it. So it’s not a perfect analogy. There’s no perfect analogy for exactly what he is, but there are things that are certainly like an emperor, that bring an emperor to mind. And there is a lot of buzz on the Internet, including by Chinese critical of this who were able to get around the firewall, likening him to an emperor. Xi Jinping, one way that people, they can’t criticize him directly, but one way that people have been taking, occasionally, to mock him when they can when they can get around the censors is by likening to Winnie the Pooh, because he’s a bit portly like Winnie the Pooh, the bear. And so they were starting to be on the internet when it was announced that term limits would be done away with, images of Winnie the Pooh wearing a crown as a way of talking about this figure rising even higher.

SHARMINI PERIES: And those social media complaints or resistance to this kind of taking up the throne by Xi Jinping was quickly shut down by state authorities. Was there any other way of expressing that discontent with this decision?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Well, you know, we really just don’t know how much discontent there is. It’s very high cost to express discontent. That’s been going on again, really, for quite a few years now. There’s been a tightening and tightening, a limiting of zones of freedom of expression. But there were a variety of ways that people tried, who saw this as worrisome.

There were people who posted up images of Yuen Shikai. Yuen Shikai was a warlord leader in the 19-teens after the last dynasty had fallen. There was a New Republic of China established in 1912. Then a few years later, Yuen Shikai decided that he was going to make himself an emperor. He was tired of just being a president. And so, people would just put up images of Yuen Shikai without comment. It’s harder for the censors to keep up with images than with words. So if you use the word ‘Emperor’ that became a banned word. All sorts of words got banned. The word Yuen Shikai got banned, all kinds of things got banned.

We don’t know the extent of discontent. There were a couple of quite bold people, an intellectual named Li Datong who wrote an open letter saying I just can’t stay silent at a time when something so terrible is happening in the country.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, let’s switch gears to what actually took place during the Congress in terms of the key decisions that were made. What is most significant, from your point of view?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: So, one of the things that was flagged is likely to happen, there was a big party Congress late last year in which, you know, Xi Jinping got his second, got reappointed to his position of leadership of the party, which again, you know, was a crucial thing. And it was flagged there that his particular ideology, Xi Jinping thought with socialism, with Chinese characteristics, was going to be elevated into the Constitution.

So what’s happened before is, what’s tended to happen, is once a leader steps down some policies associated with him are then included in the Constitution or a slogan associated with the leader is included in the Constitution. But this was actually elevating his name, Xi Jinping, into this this document. That hadn’t been done for a living leader of the People’s Republic of China since Mao. So this was part of the idea of a symbolic move that was, that was saying this is somebody who is unlike a leader we’ve seen since Mao. And other things were going on that marked the same way. And then so the ending of term limits, which the last two leaders have have abided by, these 10 years and then you step down and make room for somebody else, and also you designate a successor five years ahead of time. So there’s an orderly routinized transition. That’s what was thrown out the window with the ending of the five year terms.

So they’re doing away, saying that routine expectations were being upended. And there were other things that happened during, during this Congress that fit in with that upending of terms. In general I think you could say for several decades now there’s been an effort to try to separate out things that the party does from things that the government does, and and things that civil society does, and the trend with sort of slowly toward the party being a less omnipresent presence in people’s lives.

And what was what’s been happening here in various ways before the Congress, but then sped up very recently, is more and more things are being consolidated, gathered together, taken over by the party again. The party propaganda apparatus is now having a more direct control over the media and there are all sorts of things going on which some people might say, people who support this, say this is just a way of making China’s admired efficiency, which people around the world do look at the Chinese government and say they can really get things done. Some look at Xi Jinping and say he’s a very effective leader. And so they say just gathering more and more power into his hands and gathering more and more power into the party’s hands would be furthering that kind of move toward efficiency. But it’s also just a very worrisome set of moves. You have fewer and fewer checks and balances of any kind.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Jeffrey, what are the dynamics in the Chinese political leadership and society that have led to a reversal of the policies followed by, say, Deng Xiaoping’s presidency, when the leadership tried to redistribute power and to reverse Mao’s very powerful central role that he had?

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: So there’s been a move away from having a kind of charismatic leader, and trying to have a leader who’s more of a first among equals. And a lot of this idea was this is to, was to help China get beyond and put behind it the chaos and uncertainty, particularly the last years that Mao was in power. He died in 1976, and the last 10 years there was a lot of upheaval associated with the cultural revolution and a lot of uncertainty. And so there was a very self-conscious effort by the government to kind of rebrand itself, the party, as a more orderly, and more of a more of a rule by committee and not by a single man.

So why exactly it’s gone the other way under Xi Jinping, some of the things going on fit in with things that began before he came to power. Before he came to power the trend of there being from year to year more things you could discuss in private, you know, more robust civil society in different ways, more and more areas that the party didn’t touch in private life that had started to reverse even before he came to power. But it certainly accelerated since he rose.

I think we really don’t know. You know, it’s, to be honest, and I think it’s important for China specialists to be honest, there are so many obfuscations, so many things that make it difficult to get at what’s really going on, especially in the upper echelons, that it’s very hard to know. And we knew very little, really, about Xi Jinping the person before this. But I think you can speculate on a few things. One is there’s a trend towards strongman personalistic rule in many different parts of the world right now. If it seemed for a while that there was a kind of global trend toward more democratic regimes, we’re seeing a trend in many places toward more authoritarian regimes. And you can see parallels between things Xi Jinping has done and things that either appointed or elected leaders have done in many places. In Turkey, Erdogan has done some of these things. Modi in India, from a very different way to power, has done some things. That kind of setting up a very sort of muscular nationalism, and often then something approaching a cult of a leader in different places. Putin is one very clear example of this.

So you could say that the world is more tolerant of this right now. The world is more distracted right now from issues in different parts. So it was an opportune time for somebody to strive to be this this kind of a leader again. And there also are ways in which there are issues going on within China as well. China is getting stronger. There’s an idea of being more assertive in the world. But there are also some issues that would cause the leadership some insecurity, and some of this, the trappings of sort of grandeur around Xi Jinping, could in part be a distraction of those. Growth rates, though still very high, are slowing a bit.

So an idea of the party saying we deserve to rule because of this ongoing economic boom like nobody imagined, they’re needing to come up with a different way of positioning themselves, and part of that, part of that can be the increasing nationalistic propaganda and rhetoric and symbolism, and gesturing toward having a very strong hand at the wheel, focusing on China’s strength in the world in part as a distraction from a time when economic growth rates are slowing and likely to slow more.

SHARMINI PERIES: Jeffrey, I cannot not ask you this question. Trump announced on Thursday that he plans to impose another 60 billion dollars worth of tariffs on advanced Chinese products.

How do you think Xi Jingping will react to this, and how will it shape U.S.-China relations going forward? Because you know, China was one of the countries that Trump first visited and there seemed to be warm relations. He invited Xi Jingping and his wife to his Mar-a-Lago resort. And it seemed to me that things were on a good footing. But that seems to be changing with this tariff.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: So it’s really hard to try to keep up with and make sense of things that Trump has been doing. I think in a lot of ways he has been doing exactly the wrong thing with China, which is that Xi Jinping, in these moves to maximize his power, in these moves to stifle the press, in these things, Trump expressing his sort of personal admiration for Xi Jinping and giving these, sort of, just the sort of photo ops and quotes that an authoritarian strongman leader thrives on. And it’s not just Xi Jinping. Obviously he’s doing that as well for different reasons and different kinds of configurations with Putin, as well. But the sort of expressing, congratulating Xi Jinping for for these kind of new, new extensions of his power, which are things that he’s taking. Not being, not sort of winning or earning in a way, is, is I think just all wrong.

But at the same time, then, periodically Trump goes from very sort of, from positive things about Xi the leader to angry things about China the country, and then slapping on tariffs.

So one of the other things that strongman rule in China and the Chinese Communist Party in general has thrived on is the presentation to the people that the rest of the world doesn’t give China an even chance and is somehow unfair to China, and wants to limit China’s rise, and can’t deal with a China that’s from, from one point of view within Beijing, simply trying to regain, in a sense, its natural place in the world. So you know, all the moves, both the adulation and the lashing out, are a gift that keeps giving, in some ways, to a Chinese leader that both says he’s overseeing a time when China is being admired more in the world, that he is the kind of leader that people around the world admire and respect, and also sometimes says, and let’s never forget that the world is out, the Western world in particular is out to keep China down.

So the sort of ratcheting back and forth is, is really, I think, the worst thing. in terms of the actual economic costs, I mean, one of the hard things right now is so many products, so many things right now are entwined between the Chinese and American economy. So it’s very hard to figure out how to, how to actually do things that will only hurt one side or the other in this dynamic. I mean, it’s one thing that I think helps protect U.S.-China relations from from moving into really spinning out of control directions, is that both sides are so dependent and so entwined with each other.

SHARMINI PERIES: Jeffrey, thank you so much for joining us today, and look forward to having more discussions with you to get a better understanding of the context under which not only Xi Jingping but also his rule, you know, when I looked at some of the B-roll we were rolling in while you were talking about in the Congress, there was very little dissent in that Congress. Every decision that they voted on you saw every hand going up. So I would like to get a better understanding of these kinds of leadership and, and rule in China, and I hope you can join us then. Thank you so much.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: I look forward to joining you again.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.

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Sharmini Peries was a co-founder of TRNN, where she harnessed the power and expertise of civil society institutions. Previously, Sharmini was Economic and Trade Adviser to President Hugo Chavez at Miraflores and for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Venezuela. Prior to that she served as the executive director of the following institutions: The Commission on Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System, The International Freedom of Expression Exchange, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. She also managed the Human Rights Code Review Task Force in Ontario, Canada. She holds a M.A. in Economics from York University in Toronto, Canada. Her Ph.D. studies in Social and Political Thought at York University remain incomplete (ABD).