For a while on Monday, the letter N was banned on the internet in China. Authorities blocked this single Roman character from social media, informed observers reported, because so many people were sending one another equations, such as "n > 2," to complain about the proposal by the Communist Party's Central Committee to eliminate the two-term limit for presidents. This appears intended to turn Xi Jinping, who has held that office since 2012, into a permanent ruler.
To outsiders, the shift from giving Mr. Xi 10 years of power to giving him limitless power might seem academic – after all, Beijing remains a single-party authoritarian regime in either case. Within China, the difference is starkly evident. Just look at some of the other suddenly-popular words and phrases currently reported blocked from China's social media: "long live the emperor," "personality cult" and "1984."
Mr. Xi is not alone in eliminating term limits and transforming himself into a potential ruler-for-life. It's the thing to do these days: Vladimir Putin engineered just such a change in Russia, as did Recep Tayyip Erdogan, effectively, in Turkey. But it means something different in China.
When he came to power in 2012, Mr. Xi inherited a Communist Party that, after Deng Xiaoping ended the personality cult of Mao Zedong in 1978, had operated through a system of stable institutions and departments that ran things with an impersonal, often faceless, authority. Mr. Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, had been the quintessence of this system, generally speaking in bland platitudes and delegating everything. Chinese generally saw the party offices in their lives, and not the man who controlled them.
Mr. Xi burst into office on a mission to change that. He took control of the military, the government and the party, and soon launched missives in the media urging everyone to wage a "war against formalism and bureaucracy." At first, this meant a big crackdown on corruption, which was rife in the senior bureaucracy with its officials filling Beijing's ring roads with gold-plated Ferraris. But it also meant a systematic dismantling of the law-and-order institutions and professional civil-service branches that had guaranteed stability and kept a distance from the ruler.
The dream of a middle-class, globally influential China envisioned by Mr. Xi is premised on the strength of his own personality. The Chinese constitution has added a preamble that cements "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era" as the cornerstone of Chinese communism, and he has popularized an image of himself as the Confucian ideal of an all-seeing "sage-king." The Chinese media long ago dubbed Mr. Xi the "Chairman of Everything," for having subsumed so many formerly autonomous departments and bureaucracies.
It appears Mr. Xi is ruling not on the basis of Karl Marx's ideas, but those of that other pioneering German social scientist, Max Weber. He saw effective legitimate government power as emerging from the "routinization of charismatic authority" – that is, from those moments when the individual leadership of a popular charismatic leader is turned into a set of routines and institutions that can continue beyond her moment in power. Mr. Xi is attempting the opposite – he's rupturing the routines and bureaucracy and replacing them with a new wave of charismatic authority, much as Mao did.
The problem, in this Weberian view, occurs whenever Mr. Xi's rule eventually ends. It can either return to "legal authority" by shifting to a new set of bureaucratic routines and institutions – a difficult move when you've set a precedent of lifetime rule – or collapse into Weber's third category of power, "traditional or patriarchal power" – that is, a de facto kingdom or strongman dictatorship.
Mr. Xi is relying on economic growth, a rising middle class and Chinese national pride, rather than institutions and laws, to maintain his legitimacy. If any of those things falter, it could be dangerous not just for the Chinese people but for the rest of the world.
As foreign-policy scholars Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz and Joseph Wright found in a 2016 essay, a "robust body of political science research" has concluded that "personalist dictatorships [rather than bureaucratic dictatorships] tend to produce the worst outcomes of any type of political regime: they tend to produce the most risky and aggressive foreign policies; they are the most likely to invest in nuclear weapons; the most likely to fight wars against democracies; and the most likely to initiate interstate conflicts."
They are also the least likely to become democratic. More than four in 10 of the world's authoritarian regimes are "personalist" today. If China adds itself to that list, it will be good for Xi Jinping, but bad for any prospect of a stable future.