People’s Congress confirms abolition of presidential term limits, sparking fears Xi is ‘leading us back to the Mao era’
The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has succeeded in abolishing presidential term limits, a momentous political coup that paves the way for him to stay in power for years to come.
Nearly 3,000 members of China’s National People’s Congress voted the highly controversial constitutional amendment through during a Sunday afternoon session at the Great Hall of the People – an imposing Mao-era theatre on the western fringe of Tiananmen Square.
Applause rippled through the auditorium as Xi cast his vote, using two hands to place a salmon-coloured ballot into a bright red box at 3.24pm. A further 2,957 ballots were cast in favour of the change while three delegates abstained and two voted against, a small hint of the outrage the move has caused in some liberal circles.
The identifies of the five dissenters is – and will almost certainly remain – a mystery.
“I can now announce that the proposals to amend the constitution of the People’s Republic of China has passed,” an announcer proclaimed, sparking a 20-second burst of applause.
Two other amendments designed to shore up Xi’s supremacy were also approved through the same vote: the addition of a political philosophy called Xi Jinping Thought to the constitution, and the creation of politically driven “supervisory commissions” tasked with investigating party members and civil servants.
The parliament’s chairman, Zhang Dejiang, told delegates it was time to get behind Xi’s push to make China great again.
“The great dream of national rejuvenation encourages us to keep striving; the great era inspires us to forge ahead,” Zhang said.
“Let us hold high the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, thoroughly study and apply Xi Jinping Thought … and realise the Chinese Dream.”
Yuan Weixia, a delegate from Hubei province, said she was excited to be part of such a pivotal moment in Chinese history and had no hesitation in backing her leader.
“Xi has shown us the right direction in development and if you have found the right path why change?” she said before placing her ballot into one of 28 boxes in the Great Hall. “We need a strong leadership which can keep leading us forwards.”
“It’s what we need to keep advancing in the right direction,” agreed Mayisifu, a delegate from the Hui minority from Qinghai province.
For Xi, who is now widely considered China’s most dominant leader since Mao Zedong, Sunday’s vote represents a landmark victory in his battle for complete command of the world’s number two economy.
Opponents, however, call the decision to scrap the two-term limit – introduced in 1982 to prevent a repeat of the horrors of the Mao era – a calamity that risks plunging China into a new age of political turbulence and one-man dictatorship.
“This could destroy China and the Chinese people. So I cannot stay silent. I have to let them know that there are people against it, and to do so publicly,” protested Li Datong, a retired newspaper editor who became the face of liberal opposition to Xi’s power grab when he published a combative open letter attacking the move.
Li said he felt livid that with Sunday’s vote “more than 2,000 deputies were acting like puppets and leading us back to the Mao era”. “What about holding referendum? Dare they hold a referendum? Of course they don’t,” he said. “I’m sorry, when I think about this, I can’t stop getting angry, and saying bad words.”
The political commentator Cary Huang called Xi’s attempt to become China’s “de facto monarch” possibly the most controversial political development of modern Chinese history.
“History has shown that many political leaders who sought lifelong service have not managed to realise their vision,” Huang warned in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. “Some have been deposed … others have been assassinated by political enemies”.
“The stakes could not be any higher; renewed hostility among political rivals and the repression of political dissent puts China at risk of repeating the tragedies of the Mao era,” Huang added.
Elizabeth Economy, the author of a forthcoming book about Xi called The Third Revolution, said Xi’s bid to grab “all the levers of power” reflected his conviction that only he could put China back at the centre of global affairs.
“The greatest risk for him is that he makes himself a lightning rod. So if the Chinese economy slows significantly, or if there is some major disaster or problem, then he has basically assumed responsibility for whatever happens in the country,” said Economy, the director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Economy said that with his relentless anti-corruption campaign and purges, Xi had created “some pretty significant pockets of discontent among powerful players”.
According to one recent count, since taking power in 2012 Xi has used an anti-corruption campaign to bring down a succession of heavyweight rivals including more than 100 generals and admirals and six top party figures who were accused of plotting a coup.
“If somehow there is a weakness to be found, I think that his enemies will circle and go in for the kill. That’s the greatest danger to him at this point,” Economy said.
For world leaders Economy said she could see at least one potential upside to Xi’s longevity which would allow them to predict more clearly “the opportunities and threats they would face when dealing with China”.
“There is no mystery as to the direction in which he wants to take the country.”
For those who opposed Xi and his crackdown on human rights and dissent it boded ill, she said. “I think it’s very bleak, the outlook politically.”