Xi Jinping has cleared the way to rule for life and set China on a more authoritarian course after the country’s rubber stamp parliament voted overwhelmingly to abolish presidential term limits on Sunday.
The move turns the clock back on decades of reform and reverses a system of ‘collective leadership’ that was installed following the turmoil of Mao Tse-tung’s one-man rule.
Almost 3,000 delegates of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) backed the measure during a historic meeting inside Beijing’s cavernous Great Hall of the People.
The Chinese president was among the first to vote, placing his orange ballot paper in a red box bearing the official seal of state at the centre of the stage at the front of the huge hall.
The deputies then left their seats to cast anonymous votes as jaunty music played during a ritual which lasted ten minutes.
The room erupted into loud applause when the result of the vote was passed with 2,958 in support. Two voted against, while three abstained and one ballot paper was spoiled, signifying almost total loyalty to Mr Xi’s vision for strongman rule.
Mr Xi showed little emotion throughout.
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At least two-thirds of delegates were required to vote in favour of the constitutional changes to allow Mr Xi to rule beyond the end of his second term in 2023.
Observers now believe the Chinese president is almost untouchable.
Andrew Nathan, a China expert at the University of Columbia, said Mr Xi has “locked up every possible source of power in the tripartite Party, state, and military apparatus."
"I have no doubt, human nature being what it is, that there are many Party elites who are jealous and disapproving of him, or who hate him, partly due to the anti-corruption campaign and partly due simply to his monopolising power in this way,” he told The Telegraph.
"But they have been isolated, cowed, and silenced. Although it is hazardous to make predictions about China, I can see no sign of a brewing power struggle. Xi seems secure."
The ruling Communist Party says the move to scrap presidential limits has received widespread support from officials and ordinary people. China’s tightly-controlled media have presented it as a routine matter.
But the country’s huge army of Internet censors have been forced to mobilise to confront criticism which has emerged on social media.
Authorities have also moved to silence outspoken critics who have expressed concern about a return to one-man rule in a nation which now ranks among the most powerful on earth.
“One bad adventure could lead to Xi being ousted,” Prof MacFarquhar said.
"In that connection, the one group that Xi has to keep on side is the military." The NPC is controlled by the ruling Communist Party and a strong vote supporting the Chinese president was widely expected.
The parliament also backed inserting Mr Xi’s political theory into the constitution, a feat no other leader since Mao had managed while in office.
The party gave Mr Xi the title of "core" leader in 2016, a significant strengthening of his position at the time.
An emerging ‘cult of personality’ around the Chinese leader has seen him being bestowed with a range of adulatory titles, and one local official recently likened him to a living Buddhist deity.
In the 1990s, intellectuals such as Francis Fukuyama questioned whether humanity had reached the "end of history", with liberal democracy and capitalism apparently victorious over communism and totalitarianism.
However, observers are now identifying a return to strongman, illiberal rule in countries like Russia, China, Turkey and the Philippines.
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Additional reporting by Christine Wei