Historic meeting lauds lifetime power for China's President Xi

Censors clamp down on online criticism as amendment to give President Xi a lifetime term is announced

BEIJING Thousands of Chinese legislators erupted into applause yesterday over plans to give President Xi Jinping a lifetime mandate to mould the Asian giant into a global superpower.

China's Parliament met in the imposing Great Hall of the People for an annual session that will make Mr Xi the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, concentrating the might of the military, economy and state in the hands of one man.

As Mr Xi looked on from a stage dominated by mostly male party leaders in dark suits, a constitutional amendment to scrap the two-term limit for the presidency was read out to the chamber, prompting applause.

The legislators are all but certain to approve the amendment this Sunday, as the Chinese Communist Party leadership sets the agenda for the National People's Congress.

The amendment was presented after Premier Li Keqiang warned that the country is fighting "three critical battles" against financial risk, poverty and pollution.

The government set an economic growth target of 6.5 per cent for this year, in line with expectations but lower than last year's 6.9 per cent gross domestic product increase.

It announced an 8.1 per cent increase for the defence budget to 1.11 trillion yuan (S$230 billion) this year, giving the world's largest armed forces a boost after spending growth slowed in the previous two years. 

The report also warned Taiwan that China "will never tolerate any separatist schemes".

But the spotlight was squarely on the party's most powerful leader in more than four decades.

Lifting term limits allows the 64-year-old Mr Xi to stay on as party chief, head of the military and president after 2023, when his second term is due to end.

Censors have stamped out dissenting voices on social media, blocking dozens of words from "disagree" to "emperor" on the Twitter-like Weibo website.

State media outlets masked the comment sections on reports they posted about the amendment on Weibo.

Beijing-based political commentator Hua Po said Mr Xi was handed "a mess" when he took office five years ago and needs more time to finish the job.

"One of the greatest tasks after he took office was to remove all threats to the party and state.

"To do this, it is not enough for him to serve only two terms," Mr Hua said.

"If Mr Xi transfers power on time, it is likely that the power will be returned to the hands of the corrupt groups and the elite class, and all his efforts in recent years will be wasted." - AFP