The day China’s ruling Communist Party unveiled a proposal to allow President Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely as Mao Zedong did a generation ago, Ma Bo was so shaken he couldn’t sleep.
So Ma, a renowned writer, wrote a social media post urging the party to remember the history of unchecked one-man rule that ended in catastrophe.
“History is regressing badly,” Ma thundered in his post. “As a Chinese of conscience, I cannot stay silent!” Censors silenced him anyway, swiftly wiping his post from the internet.
As China’s rubber-stamp legislature prepares to approve constitutional changes abolishing term limits for the president on Sunday, signs of dissent and biting satire have been all but snuffed out.
The stifling censorship leaves intellectuals, young white-collar workers and retired veterans of past political campaigns using roundabout ways to voice their concerns. For many, it’s a foreshadowing of greater political repression ahead.
The result has been a surreal political atmosphere laced with fear, confusion, and even moments of dark comedy that undermines the picture of swelling popular support for the measure being peddled relentlessly by state media.
“There’s a lot of fear,” said Ma, who writes under the pen name Old Ghost. “People know that Xi’s about to become the emperor, so they don’t dare cross his path.
Most people are just watching, observing.” Once passed, the constitutional amendment would upend a system enacted by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1982 to prevent a return to the bloody excesses of a lifelong dictatorship typified by Mao Zedong’s chaotic 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.
Party media say the proposed amendment is only aimed at bringing the office of the president in line with Xi’s other positions atop the party and the Central Military Commission, which do not impose term limits.
Its passage by the National People’s Congress’ nearly 3,000 hand-picked delegates is all but certain. But observers will be looking to see how many delegates abstain from voting as an indication of the reservations the move has encountered even within the political establishment.
After Ma’s post on Chinese social media went viral two weeks ago, the 70-year-old writer decided to switch to Twitter, which can only be accessed inside China using a virtual private network, to continue issuing warnings about China moving dangerously backward.
“The police have not visited me yet,” he told The Associated Press on Friday from his Beijing home.
“But I’m preparing for it.” Ma remains in the capital, but some well-known dissidents and potential troublemakers have already been “holidayed” bundled off to faraway cities, their travel expenses paid by state security. Retired elders from the Communist Party’s liberal wing have been warned to stay quiet.
The government’s censorship apparatus had to spring into action after the term limit proposal was unveiled, suppressing keywords on social media ranging from “I disagree” to “shameless” to “Xi Zedong.” Even the letter “N” was blocked after it was used as part of an equation for the number of terms Xi might serve.
Yet, occasionally, dissent has surfaced through the cracks.
On Wednesday, International Women’s Day, law students at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing Xi’s alma mater hung red banners that ostensibly celebrated the school’s female classmates but also satirized national politics.