Chinese censors acted quickly Monday to remove satirical commentary online about the ruling Communist Party's move to enable President Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely, while political observers weighed the possibility that China will return to an era of one-man rule.
A day after the party announced a proposed constitutional change to be approved next month, Chinese internet users found themselves unable to signal approval or disapproval by changing their profiles. Key search topics such as "serve another term" were censored.
Nevertheless, social media users shared images of Winnie the Pooh hugging a jar of honey along with the quote, "Find the thing you love and stick with it."
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The Disney bear's image has been compared to President Xi Jinping, prompting periodic blocks on the use of Pooh pictures online.
Other online commenters wrote, "Attention, the vehicle is reversing" — an automated announcement used by Chinese delivery vehicles — suggesting that China is returning to the era of former dictator Mao Zedong or even imperial rule.
Another widely circulated comment played on the intense pressure young Chinese often face from their parents to marry and produce grandchildren.
"My mother told me that I have to get married during Xi Dada's presidential term," it said, using a reference for Xi typically translated as "Big Uncle Xi."
"Now I can finally breathe a long sigh of relief," the post read.
Not all the censored posts were critical of the proposal to eliminate term limits. Some users pointed out that countries like Germany and Canada also do not have term limits for their leaders, while others simply commented on news of the announcement with, "witnessing history."
The country's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress, is all but certain to pass the amendment when it meets for its annual session early next month. Under the 1982 constitution, the president is limited to two five-year terms in office, but Xi — already China's most powerful leader since Mao — appears to want additional terms to see through his agenda of fighting corruption, eliminating poverty and transforming China into a modern leading nation by mid-century.
Or, some speculated, he may simply wish to retain near-absolute power for as long as possible.
"It is most likely that it will turn into a post of lifelong tenure," said Zhang Ming, a retired political scientist who formerly taught at Beijing's Renmin University.
A retired Beijing railroad worker, who gave only his surname, Liu, said he approved of Xi's performance over his first five years in office and voiced no objection to the lifting of term limits.
"As the leader, he has done pretty well in terms of reform and economic growth," said Liu, 67. "In foreign policy, he also did a good job by taking tough positions in the face of provocations from the U.S."
Professor and political commentator Hu Xingdou said he doubted that Xi wants to be president-for-life, but there were concerns that China could "slide into a kind of fascism or personal dictatorship which will cause very serious consequences."
"Many consider this a lifetime tenure, but I think it will probably be extended to three or four terms. Maybe an unspoken agreement has been reached inside the Chinese Communist Party that one has to step down after three or four terms," Hu said.
However long Xi wishes to hold on to office, he currently faces little opposition from within the party or mainstream society. Xi already has a firm grip on power as head of the military and party general secretary, a position for which there are no term limits, and has eliminated all challenges to his leadership.
China holds no competitive elections for leadership posts, and the body responsible for reappointing Xi to a second five-year term and amending the constitution next month generally approves the party's pre-ordained decisions.
In its announcement Sunday, the official Xinhua News Agency said simply that the party's Central Committee proposed to remove from the constitution the expression that China's president and vice president "shall serve no more than two consecutive terms."
Xi appeared to signal his intention at last year's party national congress by breaking with the convention of appointing an heir-apparent to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee.
In addition, Xi has already won two highly significant victories in being named the "core" of the current generation of party leaders, and having his eponymous governing philosophy inserted into the party constitution at last year's congress.
Recent months have also seen a growing number of references in state media to Xi as "leader," a minimalist title reserved up until now for Mao. "People love the leader of the people," read a commentary on the website of state broadcaster CCTV on Monday.
Yet, extending his rule while centralizing power also poses political risks for Xi, making him solely responsible for dealing with knotty problems including the ballooning public debt, an anemic public welfare system, unemployment in the bloated state sector and pushback against China's drive for regional dominance and global influence.
In recent months, critics have pointed to two major policy missteps.
An effort to cut winter air pollution in the frigid north by slashing coal use had to be reversed after factories were left idle and millions of people shivering in their homes.
Around the same time, a push to clear unregistered residents from Beijing and other cities in the name of safety and social order was roundly criticized for throwing migrant families out of their homes in the dead of winter.
Xi's rule has been characterized by a relentless crackdown on critics and independent civil society voices such as lawyers netted in a sweeping crackdown on legal activists that began in July 2015.
Following the passage of the constitutional amendment, "there will be even less tolerance of criticism," said Joseph Cheng, a long-time observer of Chinese politics now retired from the City University of Hong Kong.
"The regime will be even more severe in all kinds of repression," Cheng said.
Associated Press writer Gillian Wong and video journalist Wayne Zhang contributed to this report.