It doesn’t take much imagination to conceive where Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to be in 2035: at the helm of the largest economy on earth, with the world’s most sophisticated system of digital surveillance and social control, a thoroughly modernized military and the latitude to bend international affairs to his own wishes.

Sometime in the next week, China’s rubber-stamp parliament is expected to pass a constitutional amendment removing term limits from the presidential office, clearing the way for Mr. Xi to remain the country’s most powerful leader and statesman.

That is not a guarantee of a life-time term, state media were quick to respond after an outpouring of critical commentary over the decision both outside and inside China, where censors have been unusually active.

But there is reason to believe Mr. Xi would like to remain in office well into the 21st century. Four terms of office would take him to 2032. A few more years brings him to 2035, a red-letter date for the Communist Party, which has set numerous goals for that year.

If Mr. Xi can maintain a grasp on power that at this point seems absolute, he will have time to pursue those goals and continue moulding China according to his image, as he leads the Communist Party to assert a sharper role in regulating the existence of its people and businesses – at home and abroad – all while demanding the international community accede to its territorial claims and national sensitivities.

In Mr. Xi’s first five years, China has drawn concern around the world for its rising assertiveness and its emergence as what the Donald Trump administration has termed a “strategic competitor.”

Mr. Trump on Saturday expressed admiration for Mr. Xi, saying: “He’s now president for life. … I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”

But confirmation that Mr. Xi intends to remain at the helm far into the future offers new reason to examine the ways he is altering China’s trajectory.

“We are already feeling Chinese power everywhere. And so if this is the situation today, just imagine after another 20 years,” said Zhang Baohui, a political science scholar at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

Mr. Xi has been open about his goals for 2035, setting deadlines for China by that date to lead the world in innovation, to have largely solved pollution issues, to have basically achieved “socialist modernization,” successfully fostered broad worldwide affection for Chinese culture and completed construction of a modernized military – language that suggests standing toe-to-toe with the U.S. in the Asian region.

Other changes stand to arrive even sooner. Take China’s economy, which is poised to become the world’s largest – a process that could take decades or, if current trends hold, much less.

The likelihood that Mr. Xi will stay on long enough to fully pursue those ambitions is prompting a new reckoning at a time when Western countries are already reassessing their relationships with China.

“The question now in capitals around the world is how do we alter the trajectory of China back toward one that is seeking integration and co-operation,” said Jude Blanchette, an expert in the Communist Party at The Conference Board’s China Center for Economics and Business in Beijing.

The alternative is China asserting leadership both by example and fiat, using its gains in economic stature to ensure its demands are met. Already, foreign companies and universities are being forced to comply with Chinese dictates if they wish to continue doing business in a country that is becoming the world’s largest consumer market in more areas.

Part of Mr. Xi’s mission is to build a China that can challenge Western conceptions antithetical to his vision of “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era,” a governance model that gives unquestioned control to the Communist Party in exchange for its pledge to maintain social stability and improve living standards.

“He is saying that we don’t have to follow that liberal democratic road, but at the same time we can, certainly for the foreseeable future, do just as well and perhaps better on many issues as well,” said Dali Yang, an expert in Chinese elite politics at the University of Chicago. “China would like to be seen as a real model in that regard.”

None of this is a foregone conclusion, of course.

China may amass the largest economy on earth, but it will “remain very difficult for us to surpass the U.S. in areas like technical capability,” said Shi Yinhong, a scholar at Renmin University’s School of International Studies.

And “overemphasizing the speed of our economic growth is not good for China,” said Wang Zhenzhong, vice-director of the Institute of Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “We have many problems: financial risks, pollution and the like.”

What China becomes will be influenced not only by what Mr. Xi is able to accomplish, but also “U.S. policies and the actions of many other countries,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Moreover, the idea that Mr. Xi holds the power to fashion China into a giant of economic and global affairs is “precisely the narrative that the party is trying to push forward,” said Mr. Blanchette.

It is, effectively, propaganda meant to cement Mr. Xi’s position – although it can also serve as wake-up call elsewhere.

“We’re not on some deterministic path here,” Mr. Blanchette said. “There’s a lot of possibility for the U.S., China, Canada, Australia, the U.K., the EU to find a way to ensure that the 21st century is one with peace and prosperity – difficult as that is on the current trajectory.”

Asia Correspondent
The Globe and Mail, March 4, 2018