The unspoken compact that has anchored the relationship between China’s government and its people – stay out of politics and we’ll help you prosper – is being tested like never before by President Xi Jinping’s move to extend his power.
The decision this week to abolish presidential term limits, setting the stage for Xi to rule indefinitely, has engendered widespread unease and jolted a generation that was brought up largely apathetic about politics.
It also laid bare a corollary to the state-society bargain: that many in China believed that their government would gradually become more liberal and open, not swerve back toward authoritarianism or even to strongman rule, according to analysts.
Xi’s first five-year term saw him steadily consolidate power at home through a shock-and-awe anti-corruption campaign while burnishing his credentials as a confident leader championing China’s interests on the world stage.
But even among the large number of Chinese who admire Xi and the job he is doing, many feel that amending the constitution was a step too far. Some are considering for the first time just how comfortable they are in a one-party state.
Despite state media trumpeting the near-unanimous vote by parliament this week to end term limits as reflecting the common “will of the people”, an undercurrent of anger and even despair online and in cities reflects less than universal acclaim among the broader public.
As China’s parliament passed constitutional amendments clearing the way for Xi to stay in power indefinitely on Sunday, social media users focused on a large blue screen in the Great Hall of the People that tallied the nearly 3,000 votes.
Many simply posted screenshots without comment. Some jokingly expressed fears for the tiny number of delegates who dared to not vote in favor.
On WeChat, an article explaining the rationale for abolishing presidential term limits went viral on Sunday, but not for its content.
Lines and lines of smiley-face emojis flooded the article’s comments section in a quietly subversive protest. The story was later removed.
“I used to have confidence that our country would become more and more open,” said one second-year university student, Wendy Zang.
“I think it’s a very sad thing if this constitutional amendment only lifts term limits but comes without any steps to restrict power.”
The State Council Information Office, which doubles as the party’s spokesman’s office, did not respond to a request for comment.