Where Is China Heading under "Emperor" Xi Jinping?

"An emperor has been born" is a popular saying in China these days. President Xi Jinping officially started his second 5-year term at the National People's Congress that ended March 20th.

He gained absolute authority and abolished term limits for presidents, ushering in a major change to China's political system.

In February this year, a state-run Xinhua news agency report sent shock waves through the world: a draft Chinese constitutional revision would scrap the 2-term/10-year limit for presidents. Just two weeks later, the National People's Congress approved the amendment, with 2,958 votes in favor, 2 against and 3 abstaining.

Xi was now able to stay as China's leader, indefinitely.

The presidential term limit was originally written into the Constitution in 1982, as a response to the rule of Mao Zedong. Mao, who maintained absolute power until his death, launched the Cultural Revolution in his final years. During the movement, Mao's cult of personality spread, and there was a crackdown on anyone deemed pro-democratic. The whole country plunged into total confusion.

After Mao's death, Deng Xiaoping came to power and promoted the term-limit reform, as well as policies opening up the country. He felt that excessive concentration of power should be avoided, and he pushed to scrap life tenures and set term limits for crucial posts.

Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who led after Deng, followed the rule and left after two terms in office. This helped the collective leadership system take root, which split power among several people.

But Xi has upended this precedent.

President Xi as "living bodhisattva"

In China, there is no shortage of praise for Xi. The official newspaper of China's Communist Party, the People's Daily, spoke highly of him. It addressed Xi as the "lingxiu (leader) who is loved and respected by his people", which is the term usually used for Mao. It said he is loved and respected by his people.

Some of the praise seems far-fetched. One party executive flattered Xi at the National People's Congress, saying people are calling him a living bodhisattva, a person who is a great moral and spiritual being and potential Buddha. The executive went on to say that Xi's pictures will be hung in homes built in farming villages under the anti-poverty campaign.

Fears instilled among Communist Party members

How could Xi gain this much power after just 5 years in office? The key lies in his corruption crackdown. When Xi took office 5 years ago, corruption was rampant within the Communist Party, so much so that many people were worried about its survival.

Xi launched an anti-graft drive and prosecuted corrupt officials, from former members of the party's leadership to rank-and-file civil servants. The public applauded his efforts.

More than 250,000 officials were investigated in those 5 years. When he came to power, Xi was rumored to be a leader without a strong power base. But he managed to instill fear among Communist Party members and this helped him gain absolute authority.

Watch for a backing car

Some in China have openly voiced concerns about the abolition of the term limit. People on the internet used ingenuity to express opposition to the rule change. For example, they posted footage urging caution for cars going backwards. The hidden message: scrapping the limit goes against the trend of the times.

Authorities frantically deleted such images. There was a temporary surge in taboo words on social networking sites. At one point, Internet searches for such words and phrases as "the new emperor", "the dictator" and even "opposition" were blocked.

Still, there were some intellectuals who dared to speak out using their real names. Li Datong served as the editor in chief at a newspaper linked to the Community Party. He had previously released a paper criticizing history textbooks in China as being one-sided. When he posted a comment opposing the term limit change, it went viral overnight. Authorities are keeping a watchful eye on Li, but he still agreed to speak to us.

"Opinions other than Xi's have no place in today's Communist Party," he said. "It has lost its balance."

"The term limit was introduced to prevent a dictatorship, and its abolition will wreak immeasurable havoc," he said.

He said he sounded the alarm about not letting China go backwards, even though this meant he would have to fight authorities for it.

"A great modern socialist country" surpassing US

Now with absolute power and authority, where will Xi lead China? In a speech on the final day of the National People's Congress, Xi said, "If more than 1.3 billion Chinese people continue to pour their spirit into pursuing their ambitious dreams, they will be able to achieve the nation's great rejuvenation."

He also referenced the goal from the Communist Party Congress last fall, saying, "The aim is to build 'a great modern socialist country' by mid-21st century."

It can be translated as his pledge to make China the world's top superpower, overtaking the United States.

Retired, rehired anti-graft chief known as "China's firefighter"

To achieve his grand plan, Xi made an extraordinary appointment to a key government post as he started his second term: 69-year-old Wang Qishan was made vice president.

During Xi's first term, Wang served as anti-graft chief. He helped Xi consolidate his hold on power by playing a leading role in his anti-corruption campaign.

At the Communist Party Congress last fall, Wang left the party's leadership in accordance with the party's customary retirement age of 68.

Xi made the unusual move of bringing Wang back. It is extremely rare for a person who has retired from the party's leadership to be appointed once again to a key government post.

Wang has been nicknamed "China's firefighter" due to his role containing the damage of the Asian financial crisis and an epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.

Wang also enjoys an extremely high reputation for his political skills. As a deputy Prime Minister, Wang worked on trade negotiations with the United States.

There's no question that China's leadership will continue to push forward the Belt and Road initiative championed by Xi, and aim to expand China's influence in the international community. One big headache is the relationship with the US, with which China is embroiled in a trade spat. Several members of the leadership, including Wang, are expected to work on improving US ties.

New power, new risks

China is facing a multitude of challenges, including reforming the structure of its economy and battling pollution. Xi is expected to take on these issues with a top-down decision making style. His power to execute policies is expected to become even stronger.

However, there is the risk that a wrong decision could become unstoppable. Some also fear that Xi's aides may carry out risky moves as they try to guess what Xi wants.

Facing an "emperor" who may or may not retire sometime soon, there are few who would voice their disagreement.

There are also risks if Xi flops in managing the economy, which could lead supporters to turn their backs on him. This could lead the administration to shift diplomatic policies toward hardline stances in order to divert public attention from domestic issues.