China’s constitution was amended to wipe term limits off the books for President Xi Jinping who assumed office in 2013 and was due to step down. Now he may remain in office indefinitely. China added term limits to the constitution in 1982, after decades of Mao Tse-tung’s disastrous political campaigns underscored the dangers of one-man rule. Two members of parliament voted against the change and three abstained, giving Xi a 99.8% approval vote. Very few inside China are brave enough to criticize the change, but Chinese outside the country are vocal in their dissatisfaction. -GEG
On Sunday afternoon, nearly 3,000 delegates to China’s ceremonial parliament cast ballots in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People to amend the nation’s constitution, allowing Xi to potentially remain president well past 2023, when he was due to step down.
The amendment was widely expected — the parliament, called the National People’s Congress, hasn’t voted down a Communist Party decision in its 64-year history. Yet it marks a striking break from precedent. China added term limits to the constitution in 1982, after decades of Mao Tse-tung’s disastrous political campaigns underscored the dangers of one-man rule.
Two delegates voted against the change and three abstained, giving Xi 2,958 votes — a 99.8% approval rate.
Xi probably would have been unhappy with much less, said Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has written a book about the Xi era.
“This constitutional revision came from him — it is fully his initiative, and it has been controversial within the party and among the people,” he said. “So he needs that extremely high approval reading to show that this is not a selfish initiative — this is not him wanting to become an emperor for life, but this is the will of the people.”
Xi holds three posts: general secretary of the Communist Party, chairman of the Central Military Commission and president of the nation. The last is the least consequential and the only one that carried term limits — China’s last two presidents, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, each stepped down after two five-year terms. State media have cast the revision as a common-sense move to bring the presidency into line with the other two posts.
Yet Xi’s landslide vote belies a deep anxiety among Chinese intellectuals, students and former officials about the implications of his seemingly limitless power.
Li Rui, a 100-year-old former secretary to Mao, sees parallels between Xi and his former boss. “The Soviet Union collapsed, but China didn’t collapse, because China’s cultural traditions preserved the Communist Party,” Li told the Hong Kong-based newspaper Ming Pao. “A country like China produced people like Mao Tse-tung. Now it gives birth to a Xi Jinping.”
Chinese students abroad, in a rare show of dissent, have reportedly strewn fliers on campuses showing a photo of Xi superimposed with the words: “Not my president.” Censors have rushed to block open discussion of the revisions on social media sites; on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, forbidden terms include “reelection,” “proclaiming oneself an emperor” and “I don’t agree.” They have also banned images of Winnie the Pooh, a cartoon character that many Chinese internet users believe shares some of Xi’s features.
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