China's national legislature approved constitutional changes Sunday that could allow Xi Jinping to remain president for life and retain indefinitely his iron grip on the world's most populous nation.
The National People's Congress approved elimination of a two-term limit on the presidency with little dissent, only two of the almost 3,000 handpicked members voting against the changes.
The vote took place at the Great Hall of the People on iconic Tiananmen Square, where almost 30 years ago student-led pro-democracy protests were crushed by the Communist regime.
The changes end term limits adopted in 1982 to prevent the type of totalitarian repression highlighted by Mao Zedong during his brutal Cultural Revolution. The constitutional changes also adopt Xi's "Thoughts on Socialism" and recognize the unconditional authority of the Communist Party in China.
Xi has won widespread support in China for his pragmatic approach to economic growth and his crackdown on corruption. But Cary Huang, a columnist with the South China Morning Post, warns that Xi has expanded his crackdown to include political dissent, citing a "broader crusade to root out anyone disloyal or who fails to comply with his orders."
Li Datong, a former top newspaper editor, issued an open letter to the members of the congress calling the two-term limit "the highest and most effective legal restriction preventing personal dictatorship and personal domination of the Party and the government." She warned that the decision to drop the limit would subject China to the "ridicule of the civilized nations."
Under Xi, China has asserted itself in Asian affairs, including a controversial effort to renew its territorial claims in the South China Sea. It boosted its military capabilities and unveiled a vast international logistics and transportation project called the "Belt and Road" initiative that aims to connect Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Xi also used China's relationship with North Korea as leverage with the U.S., and China has taken some credit for recent, tentative inroads in the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang. President Trump tweeted Saturday that China "continues to be helpful" in dealing with North Korea.
Trump also has spoken approvingly of Xi's plan to consolidate power, although it was not clear whether he was serious. Earlier this month, Trump described Xi as "a great gentleman" and "the most powerful president in 100 years."
"He's now president for life," Trump said. "And he's great. I think it's great. Maybe we'll have to give that a shot someday."
Xi controls the world's second-largest economy as it becomes ensnared in a trade battle with the largest — the United States. China has expressed strong opposition to the Trump administration's global tariffs on steel and aluminum. China's Commerce Ministry has urged the U.S. to withdraw the tariffs and promised to evaluate the impact of the tariffs on China and “take effective measures."
Zhao Minglin, 32, a vice president of an investment firm in Beijing, told the Associated Press he had some concerns that the public discourse lacked a space for dissenting voices under Xi. But Zhao said it will be easier for Xi to carry out his ambitious vision of raising living standards in China if more power were concentrated in his hands.
“I will definitely support this constitutional amendment and this government,” Zhao said. "This is a powerful and strong government."