Xi Jinping can be president for life as Chinese parliament removes term limit
President Xi Jinping can now continue after his tenure ends in 2023 as China on Sunday amended its constitution to remove the two-term limit, amid fears among experts both in China and abroad that he is building a cult of power and personality around himself.
The move effectively means that Xi could remain president for life.
Nearly 3,000 legislators or deputies of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s rubber-stamp parliament, voted to amend the constitution. At the same session, the NPC also granted the “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” constitutional authority in a landmark amendment.
China has had a two-term limit for presidents since 1982. On Sunday, that limit was officially scrapped at a session of China’s legislature at the Great Hall of the People. As many as 2,958 deputies voted in favour of changing the constitution; two voted against it and three abstained.
The decision to amend the constitution was a foregone conclusion after it was made public a week before the annual session of the NPC that started on March 5. A report in the official Xinhua news agency made it public on February 25.
Since he took over as Communist Party of China (CPC) general secretary and then as president in 2013, the 64-year-old former governor of Fujian province has gradually consolidated power, taking control of China’s key institutions. He is the chairperson of the powerful Central Military Commission and was designated the “core” of the party in 2016.
Soon after taking over, Xi launched a massive anti-corruption campaign, which, his critics say, was used for purging his political opponents, besides netting thousands of officials.
His international connectivity and infrastructure programme, the Belt and Road Initiative has garnered worldwide attention with dozens of countries joining it.
Speculation that Xi intended to stay beyond his tenure was rife in the run-up to the once-in-five year CPC congress last October. The speculation got stronger when, breaking from tradition, Xi didn’t appoint a successor at the end of the October congress.
It was later revealed that Xi had presided over a meeting on the CPC politburo as early as September when it was decided to change the constitution.
The move has faced both domestic and international criticism and questions from academics and journalists.
“China needs a certain amount of centralisation. But what do we do after the centralisation ? If it is back to the Mao era, of course, the centralisation is a bad thing. If we can further promote the reform of market economy and legal democracy, then the centralisation is a good thing,” Professor Hu Xingdou, a Beijing-based expert on Chinese politics and economics said.
“Delegates have been primed on the importance of delivering a resounding endorsement of the proposed changes – they have been whipped (in parliamentary parlance) and made aware of the importance of showing unity around the decision to centralise power in Xi’s hands,” Jonathan Sullivan, director, China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham said.
Sullivan added: “It doesn’t mean Xi is going to become a despot or rule for life – although there is an extremely strong likelihood that he will continue to rule after 5 years. Xi has a strong vision for China and the leadership has indicated that the timing is right for China to make a play for a global leadership role.”
To do that, China needs a strong leader to see the country through difficult domestic conditions and an international environment in flux, he added.
Hu said the decision to scrap the limit has both positive and negative aspects.
“It is Deng Xiaoping’s great legacy to limit the term of state leaders. Deng Xiaoping published an article about the reform of the leadership system of the party and the country in 1980. In 1982, the constitution was amended to establish two terms of the chairman and vice chairman of the country,” Hu said.
“Breaking the two terms of office term now may be conducive to further promoting the deepening of reform and opening up and promoting the constitutional democracy. But if it is not in the direction of a market economy and the constitutional democracy, then breaking the two-term term limit is certainly disastrous,” he added.
This was the first amendment to the country’s fundamental law in 14 years.
“The People’s Republic of China enacted its first constitution in 1954. The current constitution was adopted in 1982 and amended in 1988, 1993, 1999 and 2004,” Xinhua said in a report.
A constitutional change is either proposed by the NPC Standing Committee or by more than one-fifth of all NPC deputies, and then requires the approval of two-thirds or more of NPC deputies during the annual session.
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