BEIJING – President Xi Jinping set China on course to follow his hard-line authoritarian rule far into the future Sunday, when the national legislature lifted the presidential term limit and gave constitutional backing to expanding the reach of the Communist Party.
Under the red-starred dome of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, nearly 3,000 delegates of the National People's Congress, the party-controlled legislature, voted almost unanimously to approve an amendment to the Constitution to abolish the term limit on the presidency, opening the way for Xi to rule indefinitely.
The amendment was among 21 constitutional changes approved by the congress, which included passages added to the Constitution to salute Xi and his drive to entrench party supremacy.
Xi is using his formidable power to dismantle parts of the political order set in place in the 1980s and 1990s by Deng Xiaoping, who led China on a path of economic opening and liberalization. This includes the system of collective leadership and regular, orderly transitions of power that became the norm after Deng died in 1997.
Xi "has shown the world that he can scrap decades of institutional building with hardly any public dissent from the elite," Victor Shih, a professor who studies elite Chinese politics at the University of California, San Diego, said by e-mail after the vote.
Ever since the party said two weeks ago that it wanted to remove the 35-year-old line in the Constitution limiting the president to two consecutive terms, there was never any real doubt that the congress would approve the move. But the lopsided outcome — 2,958 votes in favor, two against, three abstentions and one invalid vote — underlined how much Xi dominates politics and feels emboldened to demand drastic changes.
The delegates applauded briefly when an official declared the vote over and clapped again for 20 seconds when the outcome was announced.
"No disagreements, no different points of view," Ma Shunnan, a delegate representing the Chinese navy said in a brief interview shortly before the vote. "Every delegate is on the same page."
Next weekend, the congress is expected to continue that show of lock-step support for Xi by voting him into a second five-year term as president, along with electing a new lineup of government officials.
Sunday's constitutional amendments marked a victory not just for Xi's own ambitions, but also for his quest to entrench the Communist Party at the heart of politics, society and the economy as China ascends globally.
Xi, 64, has in effect created a new legal basis for ruling for another decade or longer as president, along with holding his other posts as party chief and military chairman. Without the amendments, he would have been forced to step down as president in 2023, weakening his control.
"Under Xi Jinping, China is making a U-turn," Susan Shirk, the head of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, wrote in a recent assessment of Xi. "Personalistic rule is back."
The amendments also reflected his goal of expanding party influence across China's increasingly complex and wealthy society.
One elevated "Xi Jinping Thought," the catchall term for his ideology, into the preamble of the Constitution, honoring him alongside leaders like China's founding father, Mao Zedong. Another authorized a new agency to step up the anticorruption drive that Xi has used to consolidate his control over the party.
"There's an argument to be made that these are the most fundamental political changes to the Chinese Constitution" since it took effect in 1982, said Ryan Mitchell, an assistant law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
As delegates streamed from the hall after the vote, several said they hoped Xi would serve for a third or fourth term. One delegate, Tan Zeyong of the southern Chinese province of Hunan, said Xi should serve until he was age 78, which would keep him in power until 2031.
"This goes a step further to establish Chairman Xi's leadership and the Party's leadership in the country," said another delegate, Wei Xuefeng from Sichuan Province in southwestern China.
Supporters say ending the term limit will allow Xi to avoid becoming a lame duck in his second term and give him added authority to pursue other parts of his agenda: overhauling the military, stamping out graft, reducing extreme poverty and fixing an economy grown dependent on debt and heavy industry.
Shen Chunyao, a legislative official with the congress, told reporters after the vote that it made sense to remove the term limits so that Xi can continue to steer China as president as well as party chief and military commission chairman. There are no term limits on those latter two posts.
But the decision could prompt a backlash among moderates in the party elite, who see a dangerous hubris in Xi's actions, some experts on Chinese politics have said.
"This is going to cause some serious consternation within certain circles that are not marginal," said Patricia Thornton, a professor at the University of Oxford who studies Chinese politics.