China’s parliament has scrapped presidential term limits, paving the way for President Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely over the world’s most populous country.
Out of 2,963 delegates at the annual session of the National People’s Congress, 2,958 voted “yes” to changing the Constitution on Sunday.
Three abstained and two voted against, the parliament announced.
The results were shown on a blue screen inside the cavernous Great Hall of the People. The delegates voted using paper ballots, which they filled out and dropped inside red ballot boxes.
The move reverses the era of “collective” leadership and orderly succession that was promoted by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to ensure stability following the turbulent one-man rule of Communist China’s founder Mao Zedong.
Xi, 64, has consolidated power since taking office as general secretary of the Communist Party in 2012 – his most important title, which has no term limits but which his two predecessors both gave up after two terms.
He would have had to give up the presidency after the end of his second term in 2023, but he can now have a lifetime to push his vision of a rejuvenated China as a global powerhouse with a “world-class” military.
His rise has been accompanied by tighter restrictions on civil society, with the detention of activists and lawyers, and stricter limits on the already heavily controlled internet.
At the same time, he gained a measure of popularity among Chinese people through a relentless crackdown on corruption that has punished more than a million party officials, and sidelined potential rivals.
While attention has focused on the term limits, the amendments also include major provisions that engrave Xi’s eponymous political mantra in the Constitution and hand the Communist Party an even larger role in the country’s affairs.
The Communist Party, which says the move merely aligns the presidency with the limit-free titles of party and military chief, claims “the masses” unanimously called for the removal of term limits.
But the proposal was kept secret until it was revealed in a state media report on February 25, a week before the legislature’s opening session.
The party later disclosed that Xi had presided over a meeting of the Politburo in September, during which the leadership decided to revise the Constitution.
The party then sought proposals and opinions, culminating in a decision in late January to introduce constitutional amendments at the NPC.
The surprise move triggered a backlash online, prompting censors to block phrases and words such as “I disagree” and “emperor” and the image of Winnie the Pooh, the cartoon bear to which Xi has been compared.
A revised and final version of the legislation was sent to delegations on Saturday, according to the official Xinhua news agency.