Xi Jinping effectively makes himself President of China for life

China's President Xi Jinping on Sunday secured a path to rule indefinitely as parliament abolished presidential term limits, handing him almost total authority to pursue a vision of transforming the nation into an economic and military superpower.

 
President Xi Jinping  

China's rubber-stamp parliament, meeting in the imposing Great Hall of the People for an annual session, made Xi the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong by scrapping term limits that would have forced him to step down after 2023.

The decision moves one-party China further away from adopting a democratic system that many Western thinkers and politicians had once assumed was inevitable as the country opened up to global trade.

The move reverses the era of "collective" leadership and orderly succession that was promoted by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to ensure stability following the turbulent one-man rule of Communist China's founder Mao Zedong.

The package of constitutional amendments passed the nearly 3,000-member National People's Congress almost unanimously, with just two opposing votes and three abstentions. The vote further underscored the total dominance of Chinese politics possessed by the 64-year-old Xi, who serves simultaneously as the head of state, leader of the ruling Communist Party and commander of the powerful 1 million-member armed forces.

The change is widely seen as the culmination of Xi's efforts since being appointed leader of the party in 2012 to concentrate power in his own hands and defy norms of collective leadership established over the past two decades. Xi has appointed himself to head bodies that oversee national security, finance, economic reform and other major initiatives, effectively sidelining the Communist Party's No. 2 figure, Premier Li Keqiang.

In addition to scrapping the limitation that presidents can serve only two consecutive terms, the amendments also inserted Xi's personal political philosophy into the preamble of the constitution, along with phrasing that emphasises the party's leadership.

Xi stood up first at the imposing Great Hall of the People in Beijing to cast his paper ballot in a red box, as delegates of the National People's Congress applauded after each vote on the constitutional amendment to lift the two five-year term limit for the presidency.

Xi showed little emotion, remaining in his seat with other deputies to listen to a report on the work of the congress delivered by its outgoing chairman.

The first constitutional amendment in 14 years had been expected to breeze through the legislature, which has never rejected a Communist Party diktat in its half-century of existence.

The slide toward one-man rule under Xi has fueled concern that Beijing is eroding efforts to guard against the excesses of autocratic leadership.

The head of the legislature's legal affairs committee, Shen Chunyao, dismissed those worries as "speculation that is ungrounded and without basis."

"This is the urgent wish of the common people," Ju Xiuqin, a delegate from northeastern Heilongjiang province, told AFP, echoing party claims that the amendment had the unanimous support of "the masses".

Xi, 64, has consolidated power since 2012 when he was appointed to the country's top office - general secretary general of the Communist Party..

While the position has no term limits, his two predecessors both gave it up after two terms as part of an orderly process established by Deng.

The country's presidency is a largely ceremonial office, but the constitutional limits meant Xi would have had to give it up in 2023.  But with the new amendments, he could now have a lifetime to push his goal of turning China into global economic powerhouse with a "world-class" military by mid-century.

His rise has been accompanied by tighter restrictions on civil society, with the detention of activists and lawyers, and stricter limits on the already heavily controlled internet.

At the same time, he gained a measure of popularity among Chinese people through a relentless crackdown on corruption that has punished more than a million party officials, and sidelined potential rivals.

While attention has focused on the term limits, the amendments also include major provisions that will engrave Xi's eponymous political mantra in the constitution and hand the Communist Party an even larger role in the country's affairs.

In a written report, the head of the parliament's Standing Committee, Zhang Dejiang, said the amendments "will ensure the constitution improves and develops in step with the times and provide a firm constitutional guarantee for upholding and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era".

The Communist Party says the move merely aligns the presidency with the limit-free titles of party secretary and military chief, claiming "the masses" unanimously called for the removal of term limits.

But the proposal was kept secret until it was revealed in a state media report on 25 February, a week before the legislature's opening session.

The party later disclosed that Xi had presided over a meeting of the Politburo in September during which the leadership decided to revise the constitution. The party then sought proposals and opinions, culminating in a decision in late January to introduce constitutional amendments at the NPC.

"Xi Jinping has presided over so many important projects such as economic reforms and the fight against corruption. There was a consensus that we supported him having more time to finish his work," said Dou Yanli, a delegate from eastern Shandong province.

The surprise move triggered a backlash online, prompting censors to block phrases and words such as "I disagree" and "emperor" and the image of Winnie the Pooh, the cartoon bear to which Xi has been compared.

Activists fear that removing term limits may lead to a further tightening of already strict controls on media, civil society and religion, as Xi tries to impose his highly ideological vision of socialism on every aspect of society.