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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

China makes historic move to allow President Xi to rule indefinitely

Slide toward one-man rule has fuelled concerns Beijing is eroding efforts to guard against excesses of autocratic leadership

Delegates leave following a vote to repeal presidential term limits at a session at the first session of the 13th National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Giulia Marchi / Bloomberg
Delegates leave following a vote to repeal presidential term limits at a session at the first session of the 13th National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Giulia Marchi / Bloomberg

China's rubber-stamp lawmakers on Sunday passed a historic constitutional amendment abolishing a presidential two-term limit that will enable Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely.

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.

"This marks the biggest regression in China's legal system since the reform and opening-up era of the 1980s," said Zhang Lifan, an independent political commentator in Beijing.

"I'm afraid that this will all be written into our history in the future," Mr Zhang said.

Voting among the National People's Congress's nearly 3,000 hand-picked delegates began in the mid-afternoon, with Mr Xi leading members of the Communist Party's 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 centre 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 3.50pm, the results were read out over the public address system and flashed briefly on a screen in the hall. The delegates voted 2,958 in favour, with two opposed, three abstaining and one vote invalidated.

"The constitutional amendment item has passed," the announcer declared to polite applause.

Mr Xi, 64, 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.

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The slide toward one-man rule under Mr 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 amendment also inserted Mr Xi's personal political philosophy into the preamble of the constitution and phrasing that emphasises the leadership of the ruling Communist Party.

"It is rare nowadays to see a country with a constitution that emphasises the constitutional position of any one political party," said Mr Zhang.

In a sign of the issue's sensitivity, 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 Mr Xi's other positions atop the Communist Party and the Central Military Commission, which do not impose term limits.

While some scholars questioned the wisdom of the move, others said they saw value in sending the message that Mr Xi would be setting policy for many years to come.

"In fact, the more Xi Jinping's position is consolidated and the longer his governing time is to last, the more secure it is for the continuity of the policies," said Liu Jiangyong, a professor at Renmin University's School of International Relations.

The move is widely seen as the culmination of Mr 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. Mr 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, Mr Xi's confident, populist leadership style and tough attitude toward official corruption have 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 Mr 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," Mr Zhao said. He said, however, that he was concerned that the public discourse lacked a space for dissenting voices.

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