Chinese social media users are seeing a crackdown on an already heavily censored internet — after president Xi Jinping and his party proposed legislation that could let Xi govern for an extended period of time.
The comments are unusually critical of Xi, who’s seen as broadly popular in China for his economic stewardship, muscular foreign policy and emphasis on stability.
The legislation in question would remove the line in the Chinese constitution (Paragraph 3 of article 79) that limits the reign of a president to two five-year terms. That would effectively allow Xi to stay president indefinitely.
The limit of two terms was written into China’s constitution after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, by Deng Xiaoping, after recognizing the dangers of one-man rule and the cult of personality.
It’s part of a proposed broader change to China’s constitution that was announced Sunday, and is expected to be adopted in March at the sitting of the country’s next congress.
One source told Reuters that the changes were pushed through by Xi, and was not “consensus-based.”
“The manner in which Xi is forcing through the changes is drastic, it was not consensus-based,” the anonymous source said. “It was forceful and may offend many people, not just liberals.”
China’s state paper, the People’s Daily, called the amendment “an important move,” and said it did not mean a “life-long term system for leading officials,” saying party rules still limit leadership term lengths.
WATCH: China elevates President Xi’s power to level of Mao (Oct. 2017)
But Reuters notes that the party’s rule stating that senior officials cannot be promoted after they’re 68-years-old is “unwritten.”
READ MORE: North Korea is going online – sort of
The China Digital Times reported that after the announcement, a crackdown on discussions online about the change started almost immediately.
Editors found a published list of blocked terms on social media websites Weibo and WeChat, which included “The Emperor’s Dream,” “proclaim oneself emperor,” “change the law,” book titles like 1984, Animal Farm and Brave New World, and “incapable ruler.”
Editors even saw the word “disagree” being censored.
But the most remarkable censored terms were the letter “N” and “Winnie the Pooh.”
One user on Twitter showed Chinese social media website Weibo claiming that “N” was illegal.
The letter N was allowed as part of other words, but not by itself. Victor Mair of the Language Log speculates that this is because it would be used as a variable to describe the amount of terms a president can hold, like in a math equation.
“This is probably out of fear on the part of the government that ‘N’ = ‘n terms in office,’ where possibly n > 2,” Mair wrote.
The Times also reported that the letter N was restored.
As for the lovable Disney character, Winnie the Pooh’s appearance has been compared to Xi since 2013, and was blocked on Weibo.
Dissent on social media continues. In a message that was swiftly deleted, sociologist Li Yinhe called the removal of term limits “unfeasible” and would “return China to the era of Mao.”
Li added, however, that delegates to the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, are likely to pass the amendment unanimously: “They aren’t really elected by the people, therefore they don’t represent the people in voting, but will vote according to the leadership’s design.”
It wasn’t clear who deleted Li’s message, but official censors have been working assiduously to scrub criticisms of the amendment from the internet.
The Hong Kong Free Press reported that comments on the government’s social media pages were disabled, and only vetted comments selected by state media were visible to readers.
As for China’s response, an editorial on a another state-run media website published Wednesday, slammed the West for “bad-mouthing” the country.
“Such hysteria by some people in the West will subtly influence the way their countries interact with China. It will increase the risks Beijing faces while emerging, and complicate communication between Chinese society and the outside world,” the Global Times editorial reads.
*with files from The Associated Press and Reuters