BEIJING -- The rapid speed at which Chinese President Xi Jinping rushed through a constitutional amendment abolishing limits on his time in office gave little time for the steep opposition from some quarters in the Communist Party to block the measure.
The National People's Congress on Sunday voted overwhelmingly to scrap a provision in the constitution limiting the president to two consecutive five-year terms, paving the way for Xi to retain his post after his second term ends in 2023. The president could remain in power for as long as he wishes, provided his hold on the party remains solid.
The process by which the amendment came together was unusual. Xi revealed his plans to change the country's charter last September at a meeting of the party's powerful Politburo, launching a working group to discuss the changes. But the group did not get around to soliciting input on the matter until November, less than six months before the revisions were to take place.
The president had managed to pack top leadership positions with his supporters at the party's twice-a-decade National Congress in October, eliminating major roadblocks to changing the constitution. A draft of the amendment was unveiled in mid-January, and won easy approval when the NPC's standing committee met at the end of that month.
For most of the process, abolishing term limits was not specifically mentioned. That part of the plan was only announced Feb. 25, just eight days before the annual legislative session was to begin.
When China's constitution, dating to 1982, was revised in 1999 and 2004, working groups had been laying the groundwork for at least a year. Ordinarily, changes to even normal legislation go through three rounds of debate by the NPC standing committee before being approved.
The condensed timeline for the constitutional revision, and the term limit provision in particular, "probably kept opposition from coming to the surface," according to a party source. Certain elements within the party were strongly opposed to abolishing presidential term limits, fearing that doing so would open the door to runaway power consolidation. Even an influential figure that supported Xi's successful power grab last October expressed "concern" over the development, though "if Xi has decided it, there's not much to be done," the person said.
Convincing party elders to support scrapping term limits apparently took until China's Lunar New Year holiday in mid-February. Around that time, figures linked to China's military and the party's so-called Youth League faction, which has clashed with Xi in the past, were being investigated for corruption, suggesting the president was cracking down on internal dissent.
The People's Daily newspaper, controlled by the Communist Party, worked to soothe opposition to the measure, writing that abolishing term limits "does not mean lifetime rule."
In the end, 2,958 NPC delegates voted for the amendment, while just two voted against it and three abstained, constituting just 0.17% of all valid votes. When the constitution was previously amended in 2004, no-votes and abstentions made up 0.93% of the total. The time before that, they accounted for 1.58%. "Those casting opposition votes can easily be identified," a party insider said, a fact that it made extremely hard for lawmakers to oppose Xi's effort to consolidate his authority.
Delegates asked for their opinions of the change all gave their full support.