Xi Jinping power grab disturbs students, scholars abroad

The altering of the Chinese national constitution to remove the text limiting China’s president and vice-president to two terms, cementing Xi Jinping’s leadership possibly for the next two decades, will mean a further ideological tightening in universities, and an extension of ‘Xi Jinping research’ in institutions.

The amendment has also sparked some nervousness among Chinese students and scholars currently overseas who may now hesitate to return to China, despite increasing economic opportunities there.

While that nervousness over an extended Xi Jinping era has so far only been expressed in very general terms, it could have a similar effect that President Donald Trump’s election in the United States, accompanied by his ‘America First’ nationalism, had on overseas students reviewing their options to study in the US, according to one academic at a university in China’s southern Guangdong province.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said he knew of Chinese parents who emailed their student offspring abroad who are near completing their degrees, advising them “not to come back for the time being”.

This could reverse a growing trend for Chinese graduates at overseas universities to return to China after their studies. In the past the majority would stay outside the country but more recently a larger proportion were returning home.

The amendment to China’s national constitution revealed last week, will be rubber-stamped by China’s National People’s Congress – roughly equivalent to China’s parliament – at the annual session that begins on 5 March, after being flagged up by a similar amendment to the Communist Party constitution at the 19th party conference in October 2017.

‘Emperor’ for life

The constitutional amendment “enhances Xi’s position as ‘Emperor’ for life”, says Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, adding that he expects Xi’s authoritarian, hard-line Maoist approach will continue or even escalate.

“There is genuine concern that Xi Jinping is an extraordinarily power-hungry politician who wants to overturn [the relatively liberal] Deng Xiaoping thought and go back to Mao Zedong,” says Lam, referring to Deng, China’s paramount leader from 1978 till 1989 who brought in the country’s market-economy reforms in the 1980s, and for a while greater freedom of expression until the Tiananmen uprising in 1989.

The thought of Xi being in place for another decade or two, “is a very scary proposition, particularly for people over 40 years old who still have vivid memories of [Mao’s] cultural revolution” of the 1960s, which sowed chaos in the country, says Lam.

It is this older generation, often parents of those currently abroad, who are most likely to urge their children to stay away.

The fears are exacerbated because Xi is already a known quantity, having tightened his grip ostensibly through a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign since he came to power in 2012. He then started to clamp down on ideological freedom in universities, particularly on Western influences, tightened controls on non-governmental organisations, lawyers and other activist groups, as well as restricting internet access to overseas sites.

Scholars' fears

“I think people would be more worried because of Xi Jinping. It is going to make people a little cautious. The politics will scare some of them,” says David Zweig, director of the Center on China’s Transnational Relations at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, referring to returning scholars, often lured by generous Chinese state funding and the freedom to set up laboratories and choose their own research teams.

“There are definitely still people going back. They will be glad to go back [to China] part time, set up a laboratory, set up a research team and get that going, and try and go back and forth, but giving up their [overseas] position? No,” Zweig says.

Lam also acknowledged that the effect on scholars and students currently at overseas institutions would be mixed. “China’s official media is reporting that top companies have no problem attracting returning university graduates from top-flight US universities,” he notes, although he cautions this could be propaganda.

“Some will stay behind [overseas], but there will be as many people attracted by higher salaries back home and who want to make money first,” Lam adds, referring to China’s booming economy and the difficulties of many Chinese students at foreign universities getting overseas jobs after graduating.

“Some people would wonder whether to return to China or not, but there will also be practical considerations not related to whether they like Xi Jinping or not,” says Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, United Kingdom.

“Xi Jinping is not irrelevant [to their decision],” he says “but it is not a decisive consideration. There are a lot of better paying jobs in China.”

‘Xi Jinping Thought’

Alhough too early to tell the real effect on students and scholars overseas, analysts note academics within China will certainly see a continuation of ideological controls within their working environment “with no likely let-up for the duration of their working lives”, according to the Guangdong professor.

In October, as part of the amendments, ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ was inserted into the Communist Party constitution and ordered to be taught in schools and universities.

The Chinese official news agency Xinhua reported in December that the party Central Committee had endorsed the creation of special research centres devoted to ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, including at Peking University, Tsinghua University, Fudan University in Shanghai and Renmin University of China, Beijing.

A Renmin University official said its centre will “help universities around the country incorporate Xi Thought into their textbooks and introduce it to their classrooms, as well as into students’ minds”.

Since then it was reported around 20 Chinese universities have set up such research centres. More are likely to be set up to study ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ as a long-term discipline rather than a short-term fad to curry favour with the regime.

According to Lam they receive “handsome” state funding. “They are funded by the universities under the supervision of the party secretary, as over the past three to four years the powers of the party secretary versus the university president have increased, so the party secretary oversees this research.”

“Xi Jinping Thought restates that by the middle of the century, or by 2049 China will have become a fully-fledged superpower; it will have closed the distance with the US and even perhaps surpassed the US in certain areas – apart from these ultra-nationalistic aspirations, there actually isn’t much in Xi Jinping Thought,” he notes.

Scholars at these centres will turn out papers providing scholarly underpinning to Xi Jinping thought. “Because no one knows what it is, they will provide some scholarly references to give a theoretical underpinning to Xi Jinping thought,” he says.