The opening session of China’s annual meetings for its top legislature began with familiar pomp and pledges on Monday; however, what many will be watching in the coming days is a proposal that paves the way for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to become president for life.
Much like previous years, a work report from Premier Li Keqiang highlighted the need to limit financial risks posed by growing debt and to keep China’s economic growth stable. Li says this year, China will spend 8.1 percent more on defense and that the communist-led government expects the economy to expand by 6.5 percent.
Last year, the economy grew by 6.9 percent, but Beijing faces a range of challenges from a looming trade war with the United States to mounting local government debt.
Just as Washington readies to slap stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum, Li said Beijing will cut its overcapacity in steel by 170 million tons.
“China will unswervingly promote the globalization of the free economy and protect free trade,” Li said. “We are ready to work with all relevant parties to advance multilateral trade negotiations.”
Although Li did not mention proposed constitutional amendments in his report, another speech at the opening session did. The speech revealed for the first time that the push to pass some 21 amendments during this year’s meetings – including the article on Xi’s term in office - began in September.
The Trump administration has accepted the move to end presidential term limits with little objection. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the administration supports term limits in the United States but in the case of Beijing, "that's a decision that would be up to China."
The State Department gave a more traditional response.
“We believe strong institutions are more important than individual leaders. Promoting human rights and democratic governance is a core element of US foreign policy – it’s an essential foundation of a stable, secure, and functioning society."
China's Communist Party says the proposal to scrap the two-term limit on the president’s time in office was a response to calls from across the country and party cadres.
Plans to amend the constitution were only announced last week, just days before the meetings of the National People’s Congress began. The announcement sparked a backlash online despite heavy censorship of the topic.
Communist party members reportedly have been told to not even discuss the topic and yet state media have repeatedly said the proposals have the public’s broad support.
Xi is increasingly known as the chairman of everything because of a large number of government work groups that he heads, but his key positions are that of communist party chairman, head of the party’s central military commission and president.
The party says scrapping the limits on the terms the president can serve in office is needed to put the country’s constitution in line with the party’s constitution. The party’s constitution has no restrictions on terms in office for party chairman or head of the central military commission.
The changes, if approved, will end what has become a regular succession of leaders every 10 years that began well over two decades ago.
Some delegates with whom VOA spoke during Monday’s meetings were unaware of the proposal. And while all voiced support for the move, they also said they expect the party would address concerns and questions about how long Xi may remain as president.
One delegate whose name badge was tucked under his coat said that China needs Xi’s leadership to ensure that his policies continue to be promoted.
“That question [of tenure] will eventually be resolved appropriately, but what the government needs now is stability and continuity; what China fears the most is a flip-flop [of policies],” he said.
Another delegate, Zhang Bainan, from China’s northeastern province of Liaoning, said discussions this week would help determine whether the proposal was reasonable and necessary.
He says the proposal has his support and brushed aside concerns that the move could mark a return to the days when China’s founder Mao Zedong ruled the country for decades.
“I believe that the Communist party of China will not revert to its old paths and create a personality cult, regulations in the party constitution are clear on that,” Zhang said.
Zhang Jianping, a delegate from neighboring Hebei province, agreed.
“I am sure the party has taken this into consideration and has made plans [for this],” Zhang said.
Delegates to the congress will discuss proposed amendments this Wednesday and a final vote will be held on Sunday. The vote, party officials say, will include booths, ballot boxes and even a backup counting system.
Joyce Huang contributed to this story.