The amendment upends a system enacted by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1982 to prevent a return to the bloody excesses of a lifelong dictatorship typified by Mao Zedong’s chaotic 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.
“This marks the biggest regression in China’s legal system since the reform and opening-up era of the 1980s,” said Zhang Lifan, an independent Beijing-based political commentator.
“I’m afraid that this will all be written into our history in the future,” Zhang said.
Voting among the National People’s Congress’ nearly 3,000 hand-picked delegates began in the mid-afternoon, with Xi leading members of the Communist Party’s seven-member all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee in casting their votes. He placed his orange ballot paper in a red box bearing the official seal of state placed front and centre on the stage inside the cavernous hall.
Rank-and-file deputies then rose to vote on the floor of the hall as instrumental music played. Ten minutes later, the process had ended and delegates were asked to return to their seats while the votes were counted.
Shortly after 3:50 pm, the results were read out over the public address system and flashed briefly on a screen in the hall. The delegates voted 2,958 in favour, with two opposed, three abstaining and one vote invalidated.
“The constitutional amendment item has passed,” the announcer declared to polite applause.
The 64-year-old Xi appeared to show little emotion, remaining in his seat with other deputies to listen to a report on the work of the congress delivered by its outgoing chairman.
The slide toward one-man rule under Xi has fuelled concern that Beijing is eroding efforts to guard against the excesses of autocratic leadership and make economic regulation more stable and predictable.
The head of the legislature’s legal affairs committee, Shen Chunyao, dismissed such concerns as “speculation that is ungrounded and without basis”.
Shen told reporters the party had accumulated extensive experience over its 90-year history that has led to a system of orderly succession to “maintain the vitality and long-term stability of the party and the people”.
“We believe in the future that we will continue with this path and discover an even brighter future,” Shen said.