China’s largely ceremonial parliament on Sunday overwhelmingly endorsed a controversial change to the country’s constitution, paving the way for President Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely.
Inside Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, nearly 3,000 delegates to the National People’s Congress (NPC) cast their ballots on a series of proposed amendments – including removing the restriction that had limited the presidency to two consecutive five-year terms.
Out of 2,964 ballots, just two delegates voted against the move and three abstained, suggesting minimal opposition to Xi’s push to rule for life. The amendments’ passage required two thirds of the vote, which was a largely symbolic exercise.
The ruling Communist Party announced the proposals on February 25 and, amid a backlash in some quarters, has justified the change as a necessity to align the presidency with Xi’s two other, more powerful, posts – heads of the party and the military – that have no term limits.
“They revel in their ignorance of China’s reality and hold fast to their mean, even malicious predisposition toward China’s political system out of their irrational, subjective and unprofessional ideological bias,” the paper said in an editorial published late Sunday.
The 64-year-old Xi, already hailed as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, last week gave a ringing endorsement to the proposed constitutional changes, calling them a reflection of the “common will of the party and the people.”
But some critics say the move is not only against the public interest but also makes Xi politically vulnerable in the long run.
“He just dug a huge hole for himself,” said Li Datong, a former editor of the state-run China Youth Daily newspaper and one of the few voices of open opposition.
“The top leader’s term limits are the biggest common denominator shared by all political forces in China,” he said. “Its removal could trigger political infighting – that’s why this move is dangerous.”
However, when asked about a potential power struggle, Shen Chunyao, a senior NPC official, dismissed such concerns.
“I don’t think this issue exists,” he said at a post-vote press conference.
Since the amendment to scrap presidential term limits also applies to the vice presidency, many analysts see growing signs of the hitherto ceremonial position going to one of Xi’s most trusted lieutenants.
Wang Qishan, China’s fearsome former anti-corruption czar, is likely to become the new vice president later this week and be given major responsibilities, allowing the two men to join hands again to rule China for years to come.
China watchers say the brazen step toward life-long tenure for Xi demonstrates his character.
“He’s a bit of bulldozer – and there’s no other senior politician who could or want to stand up to him,” said Duncan Innes-Ker, regional director for Asia at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
“The trouble with being the clear leader of everything is that everyone knows where the buck stops if something goes wrong.”
Another major constitutional change approved Sunday was the creation of an all-powerful national anti-corruption agency, regarded by many as equally significant as the removal of term limits in its impact on Chinese politics.
China removes term limits
The National Supervision Commission (NSC) will have a comparable status to the cabinet, the supreme court and the top prosecutor’s office, consolidating existing graft-busting powers vested in various government agencies.
Although it will share office space and personnel with the party’s disciplinary arm – once headed by the 69-year-old Wang – the NSC can target anyone who exercises public authority, instead of just Communist Party members, providing Xi with further power to crush any political disloyalty.
“It looks very much like the early stage of Putin, the accumulation of power,” said Innes-Ker, the analyst. “The bigger question is whether or not this accumulation of power around Xi is positive or negative for reform.”
“At the moment, we are not confident about the direction the government is going on its policy of reform.”