Grumbles, praise as Chinese get to grips with Xi's power trip

Making sense of Xi's power grab in China
Making sense of Xi's power grab in China

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Making sense of Xi's power grab in China 13:18

Steven Jiang is CNN's senior producer in Beijing. He was born in Shanghai and moved to the United States from China as a teenager.

Beijing (CNN)Even by China's standard, the annual session of the country's largely ceremonial parliament seems to be a much more choreographed affair this year -- with one thorny subject that almost none of the 3,000 legislators wants to broach in front of foreign media.

In and out of meeting venues, many delegates to the National People's Congress (NPC) have appeared visibly uncomfortable when asked about the ruling Communist Party's proposal to scrap presidential term limits in the Chinese constitution, which could pave the way for President Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely.
However, loud applause erupted from the delegates in the cavernous Great Hall of the People earlier this week, as a senior official explained that popular demand had prompted the party to call for removing the restriction on the presidency to two consecutive five-year terms.
    On Sunday that move becomes official, with delegates set to wave through the amendment in a closed-door vote.
    "The NPC used to be a forum where a limited amount of dissent could be shown by giving less than 100% approval for something," said Duncan Innes-Ker, regional director for Asia at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
    "It seems very unlikely that, even though there are a lot of concerns over this particular change, that anyone would raise it in a public environment in the current atmosphere."
    By midweek the 64-year-old Xi, already hailed the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, had himself given a ringing endorsement to this and other constitutional changes, calling them a reflection of the "common will of the party and the people."

    Grumbles

    But not everyone has received Xi's push for indefinite rule enthusiastically.
    "This is history going backwards," my Shanghai taxi driver exclaimed to his co-workers via speaker phone shortly after the news broke on February 25.
    "Even Putin took turns with that Med-something guy for the presidency!"
    "Whatever happens next," he added. "Ordinary people's sense of happiness has been going down."
    As the word spread, on WeChat, China's leading social media platform, my feed was dominated by posts on this development -- with a mixture of disbelief and cynicism about the almost-inevitable return of a life-long ruler, something the Communist nation has not seen since the death of its founding father Mao Zedong in 1976.
    As the country's notorious internet censors stepped in to remove any negative references or reactions to the story, keywords -- ranging from "emperor" to "disagree" -- and images were blocked across the Chinese cyberspace.
    I began to notice a growing number of dead links as many chat sessions became quiet.
    "I'm not going to opine on this issue to ensure the survival of this group," wrote one banker friend, keenly aware that I'm a journalist for an international news organization.
    While many of my childhood friends, who are now established young professionals, have clear political opinions but prefer to keep them to themselves in Xi's China, older relatives attribute their apathy to a life-long lesson of "nothing good ever comes out of talking politics in China."
    A group of tourists stand by the Bund near the Huangpu river across the Pudong New Financial district, in Shanghai on  March 14, 2016.
    "This change really has nothing to do with our daily lives -- term limits or not," a retired uncle declared over a holiday family lunch. "I don't care about politics -- and I'm not going to follow the news during the NPC."
    My relatives in Shanghai complain about many of the same things that I have heard when reporting across China -- a widening income gap, rising cost of living and lack of upward social mobility -- but they also share a palpable sense of pride in China's unprecedented economic growth and global rise in the past few decades, including under Xi since late 2012.
    "Xi knows what he wants and what he's doing," a Chinese executive at an American multinational company told me recently. "If you take politics or human rights out for a second, you'll see he's steering the country with the right vision."
    "He's popular," said Innes-Ker, the China analyst. "There's little indication this change will be causing disruption or social unrest."
    A motorcyclist rides past a propaganda poster showing China's President Xi Jinping next to a freeway outside of Tongren, Qinghai province on March 2, 2018.

    Backlash

    For many who have become uneasy over Xi's crackdown on personal liberties and civil society, though, the term-limit removal has hit a nerve, triggering not unrest in a tightly controlled country -- but a surge in online search of the term "emigration" on search engine Baidu.
    As Xi continues his ascent, he has been tightening his grip on the internet but a rising number of Chinese seem determined to scale the so-called "Great Firewall" to find unfiltered information.
    Porcelain cups featuring portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and former Chinese leader Mao Zedong stand on display at a store window in Beijing, China, on Monday, Feb. 26, 2018. Xi is China's most powerful leader since Mao.
    I keep getting friend requests on Facebook -- long blocked in China -- from family and friends whom I had never thought of as being capable or willing to evade censorship.
    Strict censorship, along with a propaganda blitz, on the term-limit move has shown no sign of abating, with many viewing its intensity as an indication of the authorities' surprise at the widespread public backlash.
    The one phrase that people keep mentioning to me is often attributed to Mao: "The masses have sharp eyes."
    Countering the official explanation on the necessity of the constitutional move to align the presidency with Xi's two more powerful posts -- heads of the party and the military -- that have no term limits, many have asked: "Why not impose term limits on the other two positions instead?"
    With the amendment set to be rubber-stamped Sunday, everyone in China knows where Xi is headed, but few seem sure where China is going in the long haul.