China's 'president for life': Congress votes to abolish term limits

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Media captionShould China’s Xi be president for life?

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 had imposed a two-term limit on its president since the 1990s.

It was designed to prevent another leader like Chairman Mao Zedong emerging, espousing collective leadership rather than one-man rule and the cult of personality.

But, says the BBC’s Stephen McDonell in Beijing, China’s president has now amassed power the likes of which has not been seen here for decades and he is even less likely to be challenged after today’s result.

Mr Xi 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, Chairman Mao.

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.

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Mr Xi applauded after the amendment was passed

Rare dissent

The issue is not, however, without controversy.

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.

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Social media users create “Winnie the Pooh” memes to avoid users making derogatory posts against Mr Xi (r)

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 was 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”.

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Media captionXi to delegates: Is anyone against me?

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.

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