China's new red emperor

WILL China's paramount leader Xi Jinping disprove Lord Acton's famous maxim that all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely? Are we entering an era where many of the world's great nations are ruled by strongmen, despots or modern monarchs? Look at America's would-be king, Donald Trump; Russia's Vladimir Putin; and India's Narendra Modi.

China's party congress on Sunday removed the rule that party leaders may serve no more than two five-year terms. This opens the way to life-long rule for general secretary Xi. This would be the third time China has granted leadership for life after Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

Deng created the five-year term limits in 1987 in an effort to prevent any future Chinese leader becoming another Mao, whose rule ended in civil war, famine and political chaos. Interestingly, China's paramount ruler, Deng, whom this writer considers China's greatest leader, held only one official title: chairman of the Chinese Bridge Association. No need for titles. Everyone knew who the boss was.

Xi Jinping has made himself into the most powerful leader since Deng by relentlessly accumulating power during his last five years of rule by marginalising or jailing opponents and democratic critics.

But who can argue with Xi's success? China is at peace and militarily secure. Over the past five years, China's economy has expanded 50% to US$13.1 trillion, making it the world's second biggest economy. While the US has spent over US$2 trillion waging war in Afghanistan and the Middle East, China has been pouring the profits it has made into developing its worldwide trade and delivery systems.

In just over a generation, China went from third world status to joining the modern world – and may well soon lead it. Sixty-eight million people have been raised from abject poverty; whole new cities created from rice paddies.

When China's ruler is strong, China is strong. Non-Chinese have a hard time understanding how humiliated China was in the 19th and early 20th centuries by the rapacious western colonial powers and Japan.

Xi Jinping has vowed to keep building China's military and economic strength so that it can never again be dominated by foreign powers – namely the US and Japan. In five to seven years, China and the US will likely wage a sharp, violent air and naval war in the Pacific along China's coasts. China and India may war over the Himalayas and Myanmar (see my book War at the Top of the World). Preparations are already under way for both conflicts. I bet my money on China.

Secretary Xi has also made clear he intends to dominate most of Asia through trade and soft power in much the same way that the US dominates Europe and Latin America. Uprisings and independence movements in Tibet and Xinjiang will be crushed whenever they appear. Taiwan will be kept on a very short leash; if it resists, invasion is the clear alternative.

Will Xi's rule for life be good for China? The answer is very likely no. China has had over 400 emperors in its 5,000 years of usually turbulent history. Some, like western monarchs, have been successful, others disasters. As rulers age, they become paranoid, angry, vengeful and increasingly cruel. Stalin and Mao offer grim examples. Many go mad, as Shakespeare portrayed. But today, thanks to modern medicine, rulers and despots live much longer than in the past.

History teaches that Lord Acton's maxim is correct.

Fallible humans must not remain in power for too long. Lower-ranking officials must be allowed the chance to rise in the ranks and elderly ones replaced. For every splendid, sagacious, just ruler, there are at least three really bad ones.

China's Communists have done a brilliant job – in good part by junking orthodox communism and adopting traditional Chinese ways. Our current democratic western leaders are hardly role models for successful or enlightened leadership. It will be hard to convince the Chinese to re-invent the wheel. Secretary Xi will have a lot of time to think about this.

Eric S. Margolis is a syndicated columnist, writing mainly about the Middle East and South Asia. Comments: