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BEIJING: China removed presidential term limits from its constitution on Sunday, giving President Xi Jinping the right to remain in office indefinitely, and confirming his status as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong died more than 40 years ago.

China’s ruling Communist Party announced the proposed amendment only last month and there was never any doubt it would pass as parliament is full of loyal party members.

The amendments include inserting Xi’s political theory into the constitution, something that was already added to the party charter in October at the end of a party congress, a feat no other leader since Mao had managed while in office. Additionally, clauses were included to give a legal framework to a new super anti-corruption department.

Only two “no” votes were cast, with three abstentions, from almost 3,000 delegates.

Chairman of Legislative Affairs Commission dismisses concerns the move can risk a return to strongman rule

Reporters were briefly ushered from the main hall in the Great Hall of the People as delegates filled in their ballot papers, but allowed in to see them placing the papers, one by one, into large red ballot boxes around the room.

Xi cast his vote first, on the podium at the front of the hall, followed in turn by the other six members of the party’s elite Standing Committee, which runs China.

The room erupted into loud applause when the result of the vote was passed, though Xi did not address parliament.

The limit of two five-year presidential terms was written into China’s constitution in 1982 after Mao’s death six years earlier by Deng Xiaoping, who recognised the dangers of one-man rule and the cult of personality after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and instead espoused collective leadership.

Speaking later to reporters, Shen Chunyao, chairman of the Legislative Affairs Commission of parliament’s standing committee, dismissed concerns the move could risk a return to strongman rule or lead to political turmoil or infighting.

“As for the assumptions, conjecture and stretched situations in your question, I think that does not exist,” Shen said.

In the past nine decades of the party’s history it had overcome hardships and resolved major problems, including orderly leadership transitions and keeping the party and country’s vitality and long-term stability, he added.

“In the nearly 40 years of reform and opening up, we have successfully established, upheld and expanded the political development road of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” Shen said.

“So, going forward the road we are on will definitely be longer and wider, and the future brighter and brighter.” Xi, 64, swiftly consolidated power after taking over as party chief in late 2012, and the move to lift the presidential term limits is not unexpected.

In the run-up to the vote, critics on Chinese social media attacked the move and drew parallels to North Korea or suggested a Mao-type cult of personality was forming. But the government quickly mounted a propaganda push, blocking some comments and publishing pieces praising the proposal.

The party loyalists who attend the annual session of parliament have said the decision is popular with ordinary Chinese people and asserted that China is lucky to have a leader of Xi’s calibre.

“Protecting the country’s long-term stability is an extremely good thing,” Cheng Bingqiang from Sichuan province said shortly ahead of the vote, when asked if he worried about Xi being in office forever.

He Guangliang from the province of Guizhou said it wasn’t fair to draw comparisons with North Korea. “China has its own national characteristics. There’s no one system that suits all countries.”

However the question was too sensitive for several legislators, who scurried away when asked about Xi being in office forever.

“You can’t ask me that,” said one lady, laughing nervously and declining to give her name.

In a further measure of Xi’s strength, a key Xi ally, former top graft-buster Wang Qishan, could be elected vice president on Saturday, having stepped down from the Standing Committee in October.

Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2018