China has approved the removal of term limits for its leader, in a move that effectively allows Xi Jinping to remain as president for life.
The constitutional changes were passed by China’s annual sitting of the National People’s Congress on Sunday.
The vote was widely regarded as a rubber-stamping exercise. Two delegates voted against the change and three abstained, out of 2,964 votes.
China has imposed a two-term limit on its president since the 1990s.
Mr Xi, however, defied the tradition of presenting a potential successor during October’s Communist Party Congress.
Instead, he consolidated his political power as the party voted to enshrine his name and political ideology in the party’s constitution – elevating his status to the level of its founder, Mao Zedong.
In late February, the party proposed removing term limits from China’s constitution. Mr Xi was due to step down in 2023.
On paper, the congress is the most powerful legislative body in China – similar to the parliament in other nations. But it was widely believed that it would approve what it was told to.
The issue is not, however, without controversy.
The National People’s Congress has never voted against the Communist Party. But some reports suggest a number of the 2,980 delegates may abstain – which would be seen as a clear protest vote.
Censors in China have been blocking discussion around the topic, including images of Winnie the Pooh. Social media users have taken to using the cartoon character to represent Mr Xi.
One government critic wrote an open letter describing the proposal as a “farce”, in a rare show of public dissent.
Former state newspaper editor Li Datong wrote that scrapping term limits for the president and vice-president would sow the seeds of chaos – in a message sent to some members of the national congress.
“I couldn’t bear it any more. I was discussing with my friends and we were enraged. We have to voice our opposition,” he told BBC China.
State media, however, have portrayed the changes as much-needed reform.
US President Donald Trump was criticised by some commentators for seeming to approve of Mr Xi’s unlimited rule, saying on Monday: “President for life… I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”
At a political rally on Saturday, Mr Trump insisted he had merely been joking during a fundraiser, and that his comments were represented unfairly by some media.
Xi Jinping thought
Mr Xi’s possible third term is not the only item the National People’s Congress is likely to approve. It is also expected to:
- confirm China’s new government line-up for the next five years, kicking off Xi Jinping’s second term as president
- ratify a law to set up a new powerful anti-corruption agency
- ratify the inclusion of the president’s political philosophy – “Xi Jinping Thought” – in the constitution
Xi Jinping thought is the ideology approved by the Communist Party last October. Officially, it is “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era”.
Schoolchildren, college students and staff at state factories will have to study the political ideology, which the Communist Party is trying to portray as a new chapter for modern China.
Mr Xi became president in 2012, and quickly consolidated personal power while cementing China as the regional superpower.
He also fought corruption, punishing more than a million party members – which has helped his popularity among some.
At the same time, however, China has clamped down on many emerging freedoms, increasing its state surveillance and censorship programs.