China's Parliament has overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment to abolish presidential term limits, a controversial move that will allow President Xi Jinping to stay in office indefinitely and give him unfettered power that could lead to political risks.
Yesterday's amendment to the Chinese Constitution got 99.79 per cent of the 2,964 votes cast by delegates of the National People's Congress (NPC), or Parliament, with just two votes against, three abstentions and one invalid vote.
Any less would have displeased Mr Xi greatly, noted Hong Kong-based analyst Willy Lam.
"He would be unhappy if he got anything less than 98 to 99 per cent," he said, adding that Mr Xi was "paranoid about the smallest semblance of opposition" and had left nothing to chance. For example, Dr Lam said, the convener of the Hong Kong NPC delegates had told the media ahead of the voting that all 36 of them would cast a "yes" vote.
The amendment was one of several in a proposal that was voted on at a plenary meeting of the ongoing annual NPC session.
The proposed abolishment of the two five-year term limit of the president surprised many when it was announced last month. Some critics overseas called it a power grab and cautioned it would lead to greater risk of policy misjudgments given Mr Xi's unfettered power. In China, there were also voices of opposition, including from Mr Li Rui, former secretary of late strongman Mao Zedong, who said Chinese culture led easily to the cult of personality. Veteran journalist Li Datong warned it could lead to political turmoil.
At a press conference after the vote, Mr Shen Chunyao, chairman of the NPC's Legislative Affairs Commission, dismissed concerns of the risk of the return of strongman rule or political turmoil as a result of infighting. Noting there were no term limits for general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and chairman of the state and party Central Military Commissions - all powerful positions Mr Xi holds - Mr Shen said there was consensus among people within and outside the party that term limits for the president should be removed too.
Such a revision "is conducive to maintaining the authority and centralised leadership of the party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core" and to "the long-term stability of the party and country", he said.
The term limit was written into the 1982 Constitution in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution partly to prevent the excesses of one-man rule of the Mao era.
Mr Xi is expected to be voted to a second term as president at the current NPC session, which would have been his last unless the term limit was abolished.
Another key change yesterday was the inclusion in the Constitution proper that the CCP leadership "is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics".
It extends the CCP's influence beyond its 90 million members to all 1.4 billion Chinese people, said Dr Lam. This is because as part of the amendment, the citizens of China are to profess allegiance to the CCP.
Noting that the 1982 charter had removed mention of party leadership in its articles - which was the case in earlier charters - and that party leadership was mentioned only in the preamble, veteran Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong, writing in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, said the revision meant that "China is regressing".
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