BEIJING (AFP) – Thousands of Chinese legislators erupted into enthusiastic applause yesterday over plans to give President Xi Jinping a lifetime mandate to mold the Asian giant into a global superpower.
China’s rubber-stamp parliament met in the imposing Great Hall of the People for an annual session that will make Mr Xi the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, concentrating the growing might of the military, economy and state in the hands of one man.
As Mr Xi looked on from a stage dominated by mostly male party leaders in dark suits, a constitutional amendment to scrap the two-term limit for the presidency was read out to the chamber, prompting fervent applause.
The legislators are all but certain to approve the amendment this Sunday, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership sets the agenda for the National People’s Congress (NPC).
The text says the change “will be conducive to safeguarding the authority and the unified leadership of the CCP Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core and to strengthening and perfecting the national leadership system”.
The amendment was presented after Premier Li Keqiang delivered a report warning that the country is fighting “three critical battles” against financial risk, poverty and pollution.
The government set an economic growth target of around 6.5 percent for 2018, in line with expectations but lower than the 6.9 percent GDP increase in 2017.
It announced an 8.1 percent increase for the defence budget to 1.11 trillion yuan ($175 billion) this year, giving the world’s largest armed forces a boost after spending growth slowed in the previous two years.
The report also warned Taiwan that China “will never tolerate any separatist schemes” amid tensions between the mainland and the self-ruled island.
But the spotlight was squarely on the party’s most powerful leader in more than four decades.
Lifting term limits would allow the 64-year-old leader to stay on as party chief, head of the military and president beyond 2023, when his second term is due to end.
“I support Xi Jinping. I support the constitution change,” Zhou Feng, a delegate from Shanghai, told AFP.
Another delegate from central Henan province said “Xi Jinping is great”, but several other legislators refused to answer questions about the amendment.
Censors have worked furiously to stamp out dissenting voices on social media, blocking dozens of words from “disagree” to “emperor” on the Twitter-like Weibo website in recent days.
Yesterday, some Weibo users defied censors to post comments such as “shall we say, long live the king?” or “history will judge him harshly”.
State media outlets masked the comments sections on the stories they posted about the amendment on Weibo yesterday.
Analysts have warned that the move carries risks as it ends a “collective” model of leadership that maintained stability after Mao’s chaotic reign from 1949 to his death in 1976.
NPC spokesman Zhang Yesui has downplayed its significance, saying on Sunday it would merely align the presidency with the titles of Communist Party general secretary and Military Commission chairman, which do not have term limits.
The amendment says that opinions had been sought at the “grassroots level” and that “the masses, party members and cadres in many regions” had “unanimously called” for the revision of term limits.
The parliament will also vote on constitutional amendments that will inscribe Mr Xi’s name in the state constitution and create a new national anti-corruption agency.
Mr Xi will get a second five-year term during the session. Remaining in power beyond 2023 gives him a chance to push through his vision of a rejuvenated China with global clout, a prosperous society and a powerful military.
He has also pursued a relentless but popular campaign against corruption that has punished more than a million party officials.