China's unspoken compact put to test by Xi power play

By Philip Wen and John Ruwitch
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FILE PHOTO: A man looks at a building covered in posters of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Shanghai

FILE PHOTO: A man looks at a building covered in hundreds of posters of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Shanghai, China, March 26, 2016. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

By Philip Wen and John Ruwitch

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - 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.

AUTHORITY AND ACQUIESCENCE

There is considerable acquiescence and tolerance for authoritarianism in China, both out of pragmatism but also support for the idea that an uncompromising government is needed to manage a country of China's size.

But the swift undoing of a decades-long institutional check on power, introduced by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to prevent the recurrence of one-man rule after Mao Zedong's death, has prompted concern among many Chinese that the country was lurching backwards.

"He wants to be China's Mao Zedong and the only thing missing now is his face on the currency," one retiree in Shanghai told Reuters, unhappy that the amendments took place "too quickly" and out of public view.

Wu Qiang, an independent Beijing-based political commentator, said Xi overturning Deng's political legacy was, in the minds of some Chinese, tantamount to shaking the political foundation the state-society compact was built upon.

After the term limits were removed, he said, there was "wide discontent" but that the past three decades of economic growth had left most lulled into a false sense of security and "not knowing how to resist".

"China's politically apathetic middle-class have not organized themselves, they have not learnt political expression or how to protest, they have lost the ability and courage to express themselves," Wu said in a telephone interview.

There is little sign, however, that the pockets of quiet dissent could snowball into any public displays of opposition, which speaks to the Communist Party's firm grip on civil society and the narrowing space for free expression under Xi.

One university student in Shanghai said he feared for China's future now and was considering moving abroad, but was cautious about discussing the term limits issue with anyone, and never broached politics online.

"I try not to leave digital records of this kind of conversation," he said.

Most people interviewed by Reuters declined to be named even when expressing relatively benign views on China's leaders out of fear they would face repercussions.

"If the Communist Party tells us the sky is black, then the sky is black," said one retiree strolling through Beijing's Temple of Heaven, declining to give his name.

Zi Su, a retired professor, was arrested last year after penning an open letter calling on Xi to resign, saying he had gravely erred by restoring Mao-era ideology while turning his back on Deng's reforms.

Supporters fear Zi, who previously trained cadres at the Communist Party school in southwestern Yunnan province, could now face harsher punishment to deter others considering public dissent.

"Now the constitution has been amended and they say he was trying to subvert state power, the chances of a harsh punishment are higher," Zi's sister, Zi Ping, told Reuters.

Another retiree, Wu Beicheng, 57, said his parents were persecuted during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and that he was born with malnutrition during the Great Leap Forward, Mao's disastrous campaign to revolutionize agriculture. He said he worried Xi's "renegade" dismantling of recent succession norms risks turmoil when it eventually comes time to transfer power.

"As an insightful leader he should gradually lead Chinese society to an open and democratic system," Wu said. "It takes time, but it's wrong not to lead the people in that direction just because it takes time."

ONLINE OUTLET

Still, Xi remains widely popular in China.

One online retailer told Reuters she welcomed the removal of term limits if it meant the continuation of Xi's leadership.

Daniel Cao, a fourth-year university student in Shanghai said he was initially "astonished" that the constitution could be "changed so easily", and shared the concerns of others online that China would return to an era of cult of personality and one-man rule.

"However, if you think about it another way, when Deng Xiaoping proposed reform and opening up and introduced the market economy some people raised opinions in the same way," he said.

"As long as Xi Jinping can lead China to become strong, whatever methods he uses, I can accept them. In a word, look at the results, not the process."

David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project and a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, said while it was difficult to quantify the extent of negative sentiment, the intensity of the online censorship reflected the level of dissent.

China's internet censors, trigger-happy at the best of times, have gone into overdrive to sanitize discussion of the term limit changes.

Deleted and blocked posts on China's Twitter-like Weibo include references to "lifelong", "emigration" and emperors "ascending the throne", as well as widely shared memes of Winnie the Pooh, who some consider to bear a resemblance to Xi, clinging to a pot of honey.

Even the letter 'n', which in colloquial Chinese can mean "many" or "countless", was also momentarily blocked on Weibo.

"This displays a level of absurdity and paranoia that would seem to suggest China's leaders themselves understand the criticism is there, and that it is sufficiently intense to be a threat," Bandurski said.

(Additional reporting by Elias Glenn, Christian Shepherd and Matthew Miller in Beijing and Brenda Goh and the Shanghai Newsroom; Editing by Philip McClellan)