By Philip Wen
BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s decision to lift presidential term limits, which will allow Xi Jinping to remain the nation’s leader indefinitely, was met with gushing enthusiasm by delegates gathered for the annual meeting of the nation's parliament that started Monday.
Critics on social media may have attacked the move and drawn parallels to North Korea or suggested a Chairman Mao-type cult of personality was forming, but the party loyalists who attend this gathering say the decision is popular with ordinary Chinese people and asserted that China was lucky to have a leader of President Xi’s caliber.
The ruling Communist Party's decision late last month to remove the two-term limit sets the stage for Xi to extend his power, and is set to be ratified with a constitutional amendment during the two-week parliamentary session. Xi recently began his second five-year term.
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"If a good leader comes into power, we should let him remain in that leadership position forever. In this way, there is continuity. It's great!", said Zhang Donghe, a delegate from the gritty, industrial province of Hebei, which surrounds Beijing.
The largely rubber-stamp parliament, known as the National People's Congress, is stacked with those who follow the word of the central leadership to the letter.
Wang Chen, secretary general of the parliamentary session, told lawmakers on Monday that there was a "unanimous call" from all those they surveyed about the reform scrapping term limits, and that was the "main consideration" for proposing it.
Wang's reading of the term limits proposal prompted a bout of sustained applause from the delegates in the Great Hall of the People.
Asked if the move for Xi to potentially become president for life represented a backward step, Wang Jiaqi, from the rustbelt northeastern province of Jilin, said China should follow its own political model.
"We don't have to follow other countries' models. We have our own history and own systems and institutions," he told Reuters ahead of the session beginning.
"I really support it. The common folk really support it," Wang said. "You know, President Xi, I really admire him."
The limit of two five-year presidential terms was written into China’s constitution after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 by Deng Xiaoping, who recognized the dangers of one-man rule and the cult of personality and instead espoused collective leadership.
CUDDLY CARTOON CHARACTER
While this isn't the kind of event where there are tacky souvenirs celebrating Xi's life for sale, the official admiration of the president has been in overdrive in the run-up to the parliamentary session. That has left little doubt over what official line the roughly 3,000 delegates gathered in the Chinese capital are to follow.
Late on Sunday, state television's WeChat account began running a slick one-minute video, subtitled in English, showing Xi as a cuddly cartoon character and listing which delegations he had visited in previous years to offer guidance.
"Delegate Xi Jinping? That's right!" it said, pointing out Xi was also a delegate - representing the northern region of Inner Mongolia - and had a role to play in passing legislation.
Ma Baozi, from central Henan province, a source of many of the migrant workers who power the country's economy, said of ditching presidential term limits: "It's very good. It reflects the will of the people."
The party's official People's Daily, in a Monday commentary, cited "quite a few foreign reporters" covering parliament as saying that China's system of people's delegates and Communist Party leadership had obvious advantages.
"It's the difference between heaven and earth compared to the endless debates for their own political interests between certain ruling and opposition parties in the West," it wrote, without saying which foreign reporters had offered praise.
On Saturday, U.S. President Donald Trump said it was “great” that Xi could potentially extend his presidency indefinitely and suggested that “maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday”. It was unclear whether he was making the comments in jest.
Though the highlight of parliament is supposed to be the state-of-the-nation work report presented by Premier Li Keqiang, there is little doubt that with the removal of the term limits, this year is Xi's show more than ever.
Asked whether China's propaganda drive risked creating a Mao-style personality cult around Xi, Song Fengnian, an elderly delegate wearing a golden Mao Zedong lapel pin on his chest, said it was "a definite good thing".
"China must worship their chairman, if we don't worship him, who will?" Song, from central Henan province, said, adding that he believed that Xi should remain president "forever".
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Reuters Television; Editing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Martin Howell)