Ever since the party said two weeks ago that it wanted to remove the 35-year-old line in the Constitution limiting the president to two consecutive terms, there was never any real doubt that the congress would approve the move. But the lopsided outcome — 2,958 votes in favor, two against, three abstentions and one invalid vote — underlined how much Mr. Xi dominates politics and feels emboldened to demand drastic changes.
The delegates applauded briefly when an official declared the vote was over, and clapped again for 20 seconds when the outcome was announced.
“No disagreements, no different points of view,” Ma Shunnan, a delegate representing the Chinese navy said in a brief interview shortly before the vote. “Every delegate is on the same page.”
Next weekend, the congress is expected to continue that show of lock step support for Mr. Xi by voting him into a second five-year term as president, along with electing a new lineup of government officials.
Sunday’s constitutional amendments marked a victory not just for Mr. Xi’s own ambitions, but also for his quest to entrench the Communist Party at the heart of politics, society and the economy as China ascends globally.
Mr. Xi, 64, has in effect created a new legal basis for ruling for another decade or longer as president, along with holding his other posts as Communist Party chief and military chairman. Without the amendments, he would have been forced to step down as president in 2023, weakening his control.
“Under Xi Jinping, China is making a U-turn,” Susan Shirk, the head of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, wrote in a recent assessment of Mr. Xi. “Personalistic rule is back.”
The amendments also reflected his goal of expanding party influence across China’s increasingly complex and wealthy society.
One elevated “Xi Jinping Thought,” the catchall term for his ideology, into the preamble of the Constitution, honoring him alongside leaders like China’s founding father, Mao Zedong. Another authorized a new investigative agency to step up the anticorruption drive that Mr. Xi has used to consolidate his control over the party.
“There’s an argument to be made that these are the most fundamental political changes to the Chinese Constitution since it was implemented in 1982,” said Ryan Mitchell, an assistant professor of law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
As delegates streamed from the hall after the vote, several said they hoped Mr. Xi would serve for a third or fourth term. One delegate, Tan Zeyong of the southern Chinese province of Hunan, said Mr. Xi should serve until he was age 78, which would keep him in power until 2031.
“This goes a step further to establish Chairman Xi’s leadership and the Party’s leadership in the country,” said another delegate, Wei Xuefeng from Sichuan Province in southwestern China.
Supporters say ending the term limit will allow Mr. Xi to avoid becoming a lame duck in his second term, and give him added authority to pursue other parts of his agenda: overhauling the military, stamping out graft, reducing extreme poverty and fixing an economy grown dependent on debt and heavy industry.
Shen Chunyao, a legislative official with the congress, told reporters after the vote that it made sense to remove the term limits so that Mr. Xi can continue to steer China as president as well as party chief and military commission chairman. There are no term limits on those latter two posts.
But the decision could prompt a backlash among moderate members of the party elite, who see a dangerous hubris in Mr. Xi’s actions, some experts on Chinese politics have said.
“This is going to cause some serious consternation within certain circles that are not marginal,” said Patricia Thornton, a professor at the University of Oxford who studies Chinese politics. “It’s been clear for some time that Xi doesn’t share power well at all, but it’s also clear to me that he genuinely fears resistance and opposition from within the party.”
Some Chinese people worry that the abrupt change augurs a return to the strife over succession that troubled the eras of Mao and Deng.
“Abolishing the term limit on the leader of state does not make a leader but a usurper,” Wang Yi, a former law lecturer who now works as a church pastor in Sichuan, said via a phone message. “Writing a living person’s name into the Constitution is not amending the Constitution but destroying it.”
This was not the direction that many imagined Mr. Xi would take when he stood at the congress in 2013 to accept his first term as president, soon after he became Communist Party general secretary.
In his first months as leader, Mr. Xi vowed fidelity to China’s 1982 Constitution, which brought in the two-term limit on the president, and paid homage to Deng, the patriarch who had vowed to end lifelong rule so an autocrat like Mao could not re-emerge. Such gestures led some to think that Mr. Xi be would be a relatively mild leader.
Instead, Mr. Xi has proved to be a strongman who now appears intent on at least partially undoing Deng’s political legacy.
“Term limits, avoidance of a cult of personality, and the end of routine political purges — all of these were part of China’s reform-era leaders’ efforts to steer the nation out of the chaos and instability of the Maoist era,” said Carl Minzner, a professor of law at Fordham University in New York and author of a new book on Mr. Xi’s authoritarianism. “As these start to fall like dominoes, the operative question is: What could go next?”
Removing the term limit follows a series of political victories for Mr. Xi, including being crowned “core leader” of the party in 2016. But none of these steps ignited as much astonishment, and disquiet, as Mr. Xi’s decision to end term limits on the presidency. Even most experts who thought Mr. Xi might take that step assumed he would build up to it over several more years.
For now, opposition in China to the constitutional changes has mostly been smothered. Censorship erases much online discussion, and critics have been detained. Many liberal intellectuals and former officials are privately alarmed, but most also seem pessimistic about the potential to rein in Mr. Xi unless a crisis breaks his authority.
Sunday’s vote showed Mr. Xi’s control of the National People’s Congress, which in theory is separate from the Communist Party. The handful of dissenting votes this time was lower than the 45 votes of no and abstentions lodged against less important constitutional amendments in 1999, and the 27 no votes and abstentions in 2004.
Delegates are coached and cajoled by party organizers in meetings that take place away from the television cameras, said Rory Truex, an assistant professor at Princeton University who studies the National People’s Congress.
“The atmosphere was very solemn and dignified,” one delegate, Cai Peihui, said of the discussions about the amendments before the vote. “The democratic process is flawless.”