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Xi Jinping forever? China comes to grips with leader's power play

Artur Widak/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press/dpa

China is set to remove a two-term limit for its president in what observers see as an "unprecedented" reversal of its political direction toward the 1970s, when the country's Communist leader had absolute power over the world's most populous nation.

Beijing (dpa) - A proposal to remove the Chinese presidential term limit reverberated across society a week ahead of the start of the annual parliamentary session during which President Xi Jinping will likely receive the greenlight to stay in power indefinitely.

The Central Committee of China’s Communist Party, a top ruling body, on Sunday proposed removing from the constitution a mention that the country’s president and vice president "shall serve no more than two consecutive terms."

The proposal, which is almost sure to be adopted by the country’s rubber-stamp parliament during its annual session starting March 5, suggests that Xi, 64, will continue in power after his current term ends in 2023.

It would be a stark reversal in the direction of Chinese politics, which in the past 30 years has followed a "collective leadership model" in order to prevent the unilateral – and sometimes catastrophic – decision-making that occurred under communist China’s founder, Mao Zedong.

Xi, who became president in 2013, used his first term in office to continually consolidate power. He oversaw a sweeping anti-corruption campaign, which among others, fell many of his political opponents; named allies in key positions in the government; and increased his influence over the army and the economy while reducing civil liberties.

Nevertheless, Sunday’s announcement, made by the state-run Xinhua news agency, came as a surprise to many. Some of the more outspoken social media users expressed their consternation, though outright political criticism is often censored in China. Censors had moved Monday to block search terms such as "serve another term."

"I want to cry," said a user of the WeChat messaging platform.

"Where will China go from here?" asked another. "I used to think such things could only happen in history or science fiction. I was too naive."

Some isolated calls to action were strewn among social media posts.

"This is the moment when each and every one of us has to make a radical change and make a choice," wrote a WeChat user.

Observers had previously expected that Xi would step down as president at the end of his second term and possibly remain the head of the Communist Party, thus upholding the political reforms enacted by Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, who in 1982 abolished "lifelong leadership tenure."

"The [party] system is now undergoing a major change, which is unprecedented," said social commentator Zhang Lifan. "It will shake society, though we can’t predict the effects yet.

"Something we thought could never happen according to common sense – the change of the constitution – has happened. Something we thought should happen – opposition to this change from both inside and outside the system – has not happened, at least not clearly," Zhang added. "This is abnormal, but it’s a fact."

The Communist Party justifies the proposed change to the constitution through the need of a consistent leadership to see through Xi’s plans of achieving "socialist modernization" by 2035 and building a modern, prosperous society by 2050.

The amendment "doesn't mean that the Chinese president will have a lifelong tenure," the state tabloid Global Times wrote, adding that the party will continue to transfer power "in a law-abiding and orderly manner."

Critics, however, see the move as simply the latest step in Xi’s lifelong plan to become a dictator.

"It will be a return to the phase of Mao Zedong, the Cultural Revolution, when only one person makes a decision for 1.4 billion people," said Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "One voice is heard, and no other voices are permitted. This is a scary situation."

Xi’s power play was foreshadowed at the twice-a-decade Communist Party Congress last October, when the party appointed five new members of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, of whom none was young enough or with the right background to become Xi’s successor.

At the same gathering, China’s political elite voted to enshrine Xi’s political philosophy into the party charter. At the parliamentary session starting next week, the delegates are expected to write the "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era" into the constitution.

At the start of the roughly two-week session, China is also set to announce its military budget and the economic growth target for 2018.

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