MOSCOW (AP) – They are not leaders for life – at least not technically. But in political reality, the powerful tenure of China’s Xi Jinping and, from this week, Russia’s Vladimir Putin looks set to extend much deeper into the 21st century – even as the two superpowers, whose fate they control, gather more clout. with each passing year.
What’s more, when they consolidate political control at home, sometimes with tough measures, they work together more than ever in a growing challenge to the West and the world’s other superpower, the United States, which elects its leader every four years.
This week, Putin signed a law allowing him to potentially hold on to power until 2036. The 68-year-old Russian president, who has been in power for more than two decades ̵
In China, Xi, who came to power in 2012, imposed even tighter controls on the already oppressive political scene and emerged as one of his nation’s most powerful leaders in the seven decades of Communist Party rule that began with Mao Zedong’s often brutal regime. . Under Xi, the government has rallied, imprisoned or silenced intellectual, legal activists and other voices, cracked down on Hong Kong opposition and used security forces to suppress calls for minority rights in Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia.
Xi has ruled out rivals, unlocked critics and tightened the party’s control over information. An ongoing breakdown of corruption has gained popular support while keeping potential competitors in line.
His steady consolidation of power led to the removal of time limits for the Chinese presidency in 2018 and the demolition of a convention the party had set up to prevent a repeat of abuses produced by Mao’s one-man rule. Xi further telegraphed his intention to remain in power by breaking with tradition and not indicating a preferred successor. One who appeared eager to take on the role, Sun Zhengcai, was brought down in 2017 and sentenced to life in prison for corruption.
And in Russia, Putin’s most outspoken critic, Alexei Navalny, was arrested in January after returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning he blames on the Kremlin – an accusation denied by Russian authorities. . In February, Navalny was sentenced to 2 years in prison.
By defying the West, Putin and Xi have both drained nationalist sentiments. Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 drove Putin’s approval ratings to nearly 90% before easing amid economic hardship and unpopular pension reforms.
But the impact of Putin’s and Xi’s continued hold on power hardly ends at the borders of their respective nations. It waves outward in the geopolitical balance of power in countless ways.
As Moscow’s relations with the West sank into the Cold War following accusations of electoral interference and hacking attacks, Putin has increasingly sought to strengthen ties with China. And while China has so far avoided a showdown with the West as Russia, it comes under growing pressure from Washington and its allies over Beijing’s human rights record in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.
US President Joe Biden has taken an increasingly tough line with both leaders and has recently described Putin as a “killer” and has got his top national security assistant to incite China on a number of issues. Such approaches suggest that Moscow and Beijing will have incentives to build an even stronger alliance.
Like their nations, the two leaders themselves have fostered a closer relationship.
Putin and Xi have developed strong personal ties to strengthen a “strategic partnership” between the two former communist rivals as they battle with the West for influence. And although Moscow and Beijing have previously ruled out the possibility of creating a military alliance, Putin said last fall that such a prospect could not be completely ruled out.
While both Putin and Xi each appear to be firmly entrenched, there are many challenges. The pandemic, on the one hand, posed a major challenge to both rulers, and they took a similarly cautious approach when it hit.
Putin responded last spring by imposing a sweeping six-week lockdown that severely damaged the already weak Russian economy. His approval rating dropped to a historic low of 59%. Later, the government eased restrictions and steered away from new lockdowns, which helped reduce economic damage and strengthen Putin’s ratings.
Xi remained out of the public eye for the first few uncertain weeks, possibly fearing that any mistake could have given rivals a chance to overthrow him. In the end, China controlled the pandemic better than many other places and improved Xi’s position as leader.
Xi must also figure out how to satisfy ambitious young politicians who may see their careers hampered by his long tenure. And he has to demonstrate that his extended rule will not lead to excessive Mao years, especially the catastrophic and deeply traumatic Cultural Revolution 1966-76.
“Xi must cope with an essential paradox. He honors Mao and builds the same cult of personality and centrality as the party, ”said Daniel Blumenthal, director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “But he knows that his people fear and loathe Maoism, so he must also pretend that he is not Mao. For now he is an undisputedly strong leader who deals with cracks and crevices in the party and society through Maoist campaigns and purges. ”
Putin faces even more frightening challenges. Russia’s economy is a fraction of China’s, and its overwhelming dependence on exports of oil and gas and other commodities makes it vulnerable to market fluctuations. Western economic and financial sanctions have cut Moscow’s access to Western technologies and capital markets, slowing the economy and hampering modernization efforts. Stagnant living standards and declining incomes have led to growing dissatisfaction.
Russia’s increasingly close ties with China are part of its strategy to equalize Western sanctions. Chinese companies provided compensation for lack of Western technologies, helped with major infrastructure projects such as energy supply to Crimea, and channeled cash flows to ease the burden of sanctions against Kremlin-linked tycoons.
“Beijing helped Moscow, at least to some extent, withstand the pressure from the United States and the European Union,” Alexander Gabuev, the top Chinese expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in a recent analysis. “This assistance also enabled Moscow to become more confident elsewhere in the world, from being present in the Middle East and Africa to supporting the Venezuelan government and interfering in American elections.”
Military cooperation remains a border with high efforts. As U.S. pressure grew, Russia moved to expand military ties with China. Their armed forces have held a series of joint exercises, and Putin has noted that Russia has provided China with cutting-edge military technologies.
But a full alliance – putting the joint military power in the hands of Xis and Putin over their nations? Something similar seems less abstract when one takes into account the ever closer relationship between the two long-term leaders.
“We do not need it,” Putin said in October. “But theoretically it is very possible to imagine it.”
Ken Moritsugu, Greater China news director for The Associated Press, reported from Beijing.