By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN
BEIJING (AP) — China’s ceremonial legislature said Tuesday that a broad consensus has been reached on amendments to the constitution, including one to abolish term limits that will allow Xi Jinping to continue as president indefinitely.
Critics have questioned that assertion, pointing to a lack of public involvement in the drafting process and the surprise announcement of the measures just a week before the opening of the legislature’s annual session.
The amendment process was set in motion by Xi at a meeting of the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo on Sept. 29, according to a report submitted to the National People’s Congress at its session opening on Monday.
A total of 21 amendments are part of the package, of which the decision to abolish the previous limit of two consecutive terms for the president and vice president and insert “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese characteristics for a New Era” into the constitution’s preamble, are the most significant.
The amendments are expected to easily pass by the required two-thirds majority before the congress ends on March 20. The congress will also appoint Xi to a second five-year term as president.
Term limits were introduced in the drafting of China’s modern constitution in 1982 in hopes of avoiding another dictatorship such as that exercised by Communist China’s founder, Mao Zedong, until his death in 1976. Mao’s rule was characterized by disastrous economic policies and the chaos and violent ideological battles of the Cultural Revolution.
The removal of those restrictions would allow Xi to rule for the rest of his life should he choose to do so. China holds no competitive elections for higher office and Xi has sidelined other politicians and factions within the party that might challenge his rule, while cracking down severely on civil society and independents calling for democratic reforms.
That has some concerned about the negative effects of one-man rule, including the possibility of even greater political repression and misguided policies arising from untested convictions and decision making free of challenge.
Criticism of the move, and the process by which it was arrived at, have been posted on social media, sparking swift action to remove them by government censors.
The NPC report said a working group was formed to spearhead the process of soliciting a wide range of opinions on the amendments, led by NPC Chairman Zhang Dejiang and assisted by Xi loyalists.
Committees across the country submitted 118 reports and 2,639 individual suggestions, including from people outside the party, the report said. Further rounds of consultation in December involved retired statesmen and party elders, think tanks and scholars, it said.
Following the process of solicitation, “all regions, departments and sides” voiced their approval, determining that “the party central’s proposed constitutional amendments were ripe,” and it was determined by a vote at the end of January that they be submitted to this month’s NPC meeting, the report said.
The report and party officials say the abolition of term limits is necessary to align the office of president with Xi’s other two, more powerful positions as head of the party and the committee controlling the armed forces, neither of which is bound by term limits.
However, the secretive manner in which the amendments were drafted is a break from past practice, said Beijing-based political commentator Zhang Lifan. The first word most Chinese had of the move to eliminate term limits came on Feb. 25.
“In every previous amendment to the constitution, public opinions were solicited openly, but we haven’t seen any information beforehand this time,” Zhang said.
“The disruptive amendment has brought about a constitutional crisis casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Communist Party in the future,” he said. “No country would revise its constitution at will and no country would put the role of a party into its constitution. I really don’t know how the crisis can come to an end.”
China’s 1982 constitution has been amended four times, most recently in 2004.