by Joanna Chiu and Laurent Thomet
Thousands of Chinese legislators erupted into enthusiastic applause on Monday over plans to give President Xi Jinping a lifetime mandate to mould 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 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 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 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 (US$175 billion) this year, giving the world’s largest armed forces a boost after spending growth slowed in the previous two years.
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) March 5, 2018
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.
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 downplayed its significance, saying 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.
Censors have worked furiously to stamp out dissenting voices on social media, blocking dozens of words from “disagree” to “emperor”.
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 Xi’s name in the state constitution and create a new national anti-corruption agency.
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.
Hua Po, a Beijing-based political commentator, said Xi was handed “a mess” when he took office five years ago and needs more time to finish the job.
“One of the greatest tasks after he took office was to remove all threats to the party and state. To do this, it is not enough for him to serve only two terms,” Hua told AFP.
“The Chinese system is a system that requires strong leaders, but it’s not easy to train a strongman. Xi needs more time to find and train the right successors,” he said.
“If Xi transfers power on time, it is likely that the power will be returned to the hands of the corrupt groups and the elite class and all his efforts in the recent years will be wasted.”
While the NPC is expected to approve the amendment, analysts say legislators could voice their displeasure by abstaining or voting against the appointments of certain Xi allies to top posts.
“We don’t hear about opposition to his life tenure because of censorship,” said Willy Lam, politics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“But there is opposition within the regime from people who think that this is outrageous, that he is going too far, that he has launched a coup against the party.”
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