China’s parliament has passed historic constitutional changes that abolish term limits to let President Xi Jinping rule indefinitely.
Sunday’s announcement of the vote, witnessed by reporters in the Great Hall of the People, passed with two “no” votes and three abstentions among almost 3000 delegates.
China’s ruling Communist Party proposed the amendment last month and there was never any doubt it would pass as parliament is packed with loyal party members who would not have opposed the proposal.
In a sign of the issue’s sensitivity, government censors are aggressively scrubbing social media of expressions ranging from “I disagree” to “Xi Zedong.”
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 slide toward one-man rule under Xi has fuelled concern that Beijing is eroding efforts to guard against the excesses of autocratic leadership and make economic regulation more stable and predictable.
The government has said lifting the term limits is about protecting the authority of the party with Xi at its centre.
The party gave Xi the title of “core” leader in 2016, a significant strengthening of his position at the time.
While the presidency is important, Xi’s positions as head of the party and head of the military are considered more important, and these titles are always given first by state media. With the passage of the amendment, now none of the posts have formal term limits.
The amendments also include inserting Xi’s political theory into the constitution, something that was already done for the party constitution in October, and clauses to give a legal framework to a new super anti-corruption department – the National Supervision Commission.
Critics see the Commission as a new tool of political persecution.
“If Xi Jinping is backing it, you know it will be a tool to consolidate absolute political control by persecuting enemies, intimidating potential adversaries, and hounding everybody else,” author Gordon Chang said.
Xi has aimed to meld the Communist Party and the state more closely together in order “to provide China with the domestic political machine to achieve his global ambitions,” said Jonathan Fenby, a researcher with TS Lombard in London.
The party’s dominance over all aspects of society has been Xi’s aim for years, as outlined by his close ally, Wang Qishan, who used to head the feared anti-graft commission.
“There’s no separation of the party and the government,” Wang said last year during a political meeting in Beijing. “We must be clear cut and righteous about this.”