China’s rubber-stamp lawmakers on Sunday passed a historic constitutional amendment abolishing presidential term limits that will enable President Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely.
The National People’s Congress’ nearly 3,000 hand-picked delegates endorsed the constitutional amendment, voting 2,958 in favor with two opposed, three abstaining and one vote invalidated.
The amendment upends a system enacted by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1982 to prevent a return to the bloody excesses of a lifelong dictatorship typified by Mao Zedong’s chaotic 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. The constitution had until now limited presidents to serving only two consecutive terms.
Voting began in the mid-afternoon, with Xi leading members of the seven-member all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee in casting their votes. He placed his orange ballot paper in a red box bearing the official seal of state placed front and center on the stage inside the cavernous hall.
Rank and file deputies then rose to vote on the floor of the hall as jaunty instrumental music played. Ten minutes later, the process had ended and delegates were asked to return to their seats while the votes were counted.
Shortly after 3:50 p.m. the results were read out over the public address system and flashed briefly on a screen in the hall.
“The constitutional amendment item has passed,” the announcer declared to polite applause.
Xi Jinping appeared to show 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 slide toward one-man rule under Xi has fueled concern that Beijing is eroding efforts to guard against the excesses of autocratic leadership and make economic regulation more stable and predictable.
In a sign of the issue’s sensitivity, the government censors are aggressively scrubbing social media of expressions ranging from “I disagree” to “Xi Zedong.” A number of prominent Chinese figures have publicly protested the move, despite the risk of official retaliation.
The legislature’s spokesman has said the abolishing of term limits is aimed only at bringing the office of the president in line with Xi Jinping’s other positions atop the ruling Communist Party and the Central Military Commission, which do not impose term limits.
The move is widely seen as the culmination of the 64-year-old 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 party’s No. 2 figure, Premier Li Keqiang.
To be sure, Xi’s confident, populist leadership style and tough attitude toward official corruption has won him a significant degree of popular support.
Zhao Minglin, 32, a vice president of an investment firm in Beijing, said it was easier for Xi to carry out his ambitious vision of raising living standards in China if more power were concentrated in his hands.
“I will definitely support this constitutional amendment and this government. This is a powerful and strong government,” Zhao said. He added, however, that he was concerned that the public discourse lacked a space for dissenting voices.