President Xi Jinping is counting on a gathering of nearly 3,000 lawmakers to show unequivocal support for his bid to govern China indefinitely by setting aside a decades-old safeguard against despotic rule.
The annual legislative session, which starts Monday, is set to approve a proposal to scrap presidential term limits. But anything less than a near-unanimous vote at the National People’s Congress could signal disquiet within the Chinese establishment and embolden critics of Mr. Xi in a country scarred by the disastrous policies of Mao Zedong.
Mr. Xi has steadily dismantled the model of collective leadership that started taking shape in the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping. Seeking to prevent a return to the Mao-era concentration of power, Deng’s administration set a constitutional cap of two presidential terms in 1982 and established clearer divisions of duties between party and state.
Since becoming party chief in late 2012, Mr. Xi has assumed control of the economy, traditionally the domain of China’s premier. He pursued an anticorruption drive that has lasted far longer than previous campaigns, and expanded his targets to include officials deemed disloyal and inept.
He assumed personal oversight over high-level appointments, ending his predecessor’s experiment with internal straw polls, and swiftly promoted his own allies into top ranks.
In October, the party proclaimed Mr. Xi as its greatest living theorist and gave him a second five-year term without naming a likely successor—a signal of his plans to stay in power for the long haul.
Repealing presidential term limits is “the last nail in the coffin for the political system constructed by Deng Xiaoping,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California.
A main task of this month’s congress is to fill an array of government jobs, with Xi allies likely to assume key portfolios.
Lawmakers are also expected to enshrine Communist Party rule as a constitutional principle, approve the creation of a powerful anticorruption agency that expands CCP oversight over all public servants, and review plans for restructuring China’s sprawling bureaucracy—key steps in Mr. Xi’s efforts to install himself at the center of the party and government.
The stakes are high for Mr. Xi, whose name is closely linked with every major policy spanning the economy, development, environment and diplomacy.
He must manage a long-term slowdown in an economy weighed by high debt loads and an aging population. His administration also faces the threat of a trade war with the US, and geopolitical tensions, particularly around North Korea’s nuclear program.
“Xi is reaching the peak of his powers, and now the challenge is to maintain his authority and deliver results,” Mr. Pei said.
Mr. Xi is widely popular with China’s rural and working classes, in large part due to his far-reaching crackdown on corruption and a carefully crafted image as an avuncular, down-to-earth leader.
Vocal discontent with his efforts to consolidate power appears largely limited to China’s urban elite. Online criticism that followed the term-limit proposal’s announcement on Sunday was swiftly scrubbed by censors.
State media has defended the constitutional revision, saying it brings the tenure for the presidency in line with Mr. Xi’s other posts, party chief and military-commission chairman, from which he derives his true authority. Those positions have no formal term limits, though party rules prohibit life tenure for any leadership post.
“This amendment doesn’t portend changes to the retirement system for leading party and state officials, nor does it mean life tenure for leaders,” the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, People’s Daily, said in a Thursday commentary. Rather, the change will help “protect the party center’s authority and centralized, unified leadership,” it said.
By amending the constitution to entrench one-party rule, Mr. Xi also strengthens his professed commitment to “rule of law” and his self-styled image as a fearless punisher of corrupt officials and other miscreants, some legal experts say.
Mr. Xi “considers the law an important source of legitimacy,” said Taisu Zhang, an associate professor at Yale Law School who studies China’s legal system.
While past congresses have allowed officials to powwow over policy and, to some extent, vent critical views, Mr. Xi’s dominance could mean this year’s two-week session offers little more than obsequious displays of loyalty to the leader and his agenda.
Constitutional amendments require approval from at least two-thirds of congressional delegates. When the constitution was last revised in 2004, just 10 dissents and 17 abstentions were recorded among 2,890 valid ballots cast.
While the congress has never shot down a government proposal, votes on controversial bills—requiring a simple majority to pass—have occasionally veered off script. In 1992, nearly a third of lawmakers voted against or abstained from a motion to approve the Three Gorges Dam project, which later caused environmental damage and displaced more than a million people.
The Wall Street Journal