Increased approval rate offers controversial changes the semblance of universal support regardless of criticism

March 12, 2018 – SCMP

China’s legislature gave near-unanimous approval to sweeping changes to the constitution on Sunday, formally removing term limits to enable Xi Jinping to stay as president beyond 2023.

Deferring to Xi’s unchallenged authority, the National People’s Congress passed the historic constitutional amendments with 2,958 votes in favour, only two against, and three abstentions. One ballot was invalid and 16 deputies were absent from the vote.

It also endorsed an assortment of revisions to further cement the Communist Party’s control and supremacy. They include setting up a new anti-graft agency to extend the powers of the party’s graft watchdog, inserting the party’s leadership into the main body of the country’s constitution, and adding Xi’s eponymous political theory.

The deputies queued up to place paper ballots in 28 electronic boxes scattered around the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The whole process took 50 minutes compared with the almost two hours in the two previous constitutional amendments as the ballot boxes recorded the votes electronically. Xi also looked more relaxed compared to last Monday’s opening ceremony for the annual meeting of the NPC, when he looked serious and tense.

The endorsement came as no surprise, given the Communist Party’s iron grip on the legislature. But the extremely high approval rate nevertheless lends the controversial move a veneer of universal support within the establishment, in face of unceasing criticism and scepticism at home and abroad.

“The extraordinarily low veto and abstention numbers in today’s historic vote are evidence of a worrying trend that has suppressed not only debate, but even expressions of the plurality of opinion, within the upper echelons of the party elite,” said Professor Patricia Thornton, a Chinese politics specialist at the University of Oxford.

After just five years in office, Xi has amassed unparalleled authority to become the country’s most powerful leader in decades. With the presidential term limit formally dropped from the constitution, he could become one of China’s longest-serving modern leaders – to the disquiet of many who fear a return to strongman rule.