BEIJING -- China on Sunday abolished term limits on the presidency, opening a path for President Xi Jinping to rule the country as he pleases for decades to come, absent some unforeseen blow to his substantial political support.
The National People's Congress voted to remove a clause in the constitution limiting the president and vice president to two consecutive five-year terms. A total of 2,958 delegates voted for scrapping the clause. Only two delegates voted no, three abstained and one ballot was spoiled. The amendment vote required a two-thirds majority to pass.
The last major change to China's constitution -- which dates to 1982 -- enshrined the political ideology of former President Jiang Zemin. It drew 10 opposing votes and 17 abstentions.
The vote on Sunday was carried out by secret ballot, Shen Chunyao, a legislative spokesman, told reporters. The Communist Party, however, controls the legislature and the leadership's proposals are never rejected.
Vice President Li Yuanchao is not expected to stay on in his role. On Sunday, attention was focused on Wang Qishan, a Xi confidant who, according to some media reports, will be named vice president next week as part of the new leadership lineup for Xi's second term.
During Wang's five years as head of the party's anti-graft body, 254,419 officials were investigated for possible wrongdoing, according to government data. Probes involving officials of at least vice ministerial rank grew fourfold over the period, highlighting Xi's public commitment to weed out malpractice at all levels.
Xi's other posts, including secretary-general of the Communist Party and head of China's armed forces, carry no explicit term limits. The president's political ideology has also been written into the constitution with his name attached, making him China's third leader after Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping to receive that honor. Given Xi's knack for consolidating and maintaining power, the leader has an excellent chance of holding on to control of the party, state and military beyond 2023, when his second presidential term would otherwise expire.
Chinese state media have played down the abolition of term limits. Amending the constitution "is a major decision made by the CPC Central Committee from the overall and strategic height of upholding and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era," Xinhua quoted Xi as saying Wednesday. In a news conference after the amendment was approved, a government spokesperson said that concerns about a power struggle like that seen during China's Cultural Revolution were "invalid," in response to questioning by a foreign reporter.
But the official line aside, the removal of term limits is highly significant, dismantling one of the most effective checks on power in a country where citizens do not have the right to vote. Deng, a reformer, introduced the limits to curb abuses of power like those seen under Mao, who led the party as chairman until his death at 76.
Given the ease with which Xi has removed this check, some say absolute rule as party leader, a la Mao, may not be far off in China. If the next Communist Party congress in 2022 effectively abolishes the customary retirement age of 68 for senior officials, Xi could rule the party and state into the mid-2030s, when he would be well into his 80s.
"Xi can now compel China's system to focus on ambitious reform initiatives that require long-term efforts," analysts Evan Medeiros and Michael Hirson of research company Eurasia Group said in a recent note to clients. "Thorny issues like overhauling the health care and pension systems can no longer be put off by officials hoping his priorities will change in 2022."
At the same time, they said, "Xi is fostering a political environment in China that increases the risk of policy failure" by surrounding himself with officials who are focused primarily on pleasing him, likely to the detriment of their candor. By putting his authority on every matter at the same time, Medeiros and Hirson said, Xi "is very vulnerable if he has one or many policy failures, and the knives are likely to come out quickly in such a scenario."
The amendment's immense significance could account for the veil of secrecy that has apparently fallen over this year's legislative session. Typically, meetings of the NPC focus on economic matters, and delegates are swamped with diplomats and foreign business officials looking for insight on China's regional economies and business opportunities. But this year's legislative session has taken on a decidedly political cast since the amendment was first proposed.
Senior Communist Party officials have warned the delegates not to talk with foreign governments or businesses, a diplomatic source said, as removing term limits has been criticized abroad as moving one step closer to autocracy. "We've been cut off," said a representative of a Japanese company.
Xi's task now is to hold on to his support within the party, a feat that will require keeping China's economy stable. China's government is tightening its grip on markets and encouraging state enterprises to grow and consolidate. But if the economy veers off course, whether by Xi's own doing or because of a global downturn, the leader's support could waver.
Nikkei staff writer Oki Nagai in Beijing contributed to this article.