Beijing, China – The ruling Chinese Communist Party government announced plans on February 25th to remove a constitutional clause limiting presidential service to two five-year terms, paving the way for current Chinese President Xi Jinping to retain control of the country indefinitely after his second term expires in 2023. The proposed amendments to China’s constitution are expected to be signed off by the country’s parliament, the National People’s Congress.
The move to eliminate term limits has been met with condemnation and social media backlash in China since it was announced on Sunday, the eve of an annual political congress in Beijing, and has pushed China’s online government censors into overdrive. As Chinese took to social media to criticize the announcement, government censors went into overdrive suppressing the use of certain terms to retain an illusion of support for the ruling Communist Party and Xi Jinping.
Heavy censorship on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-type microblog, has become the norm since the announcement, according to China Digital Times and Free Weibo, two China censorship-monitoring websites, which noted that censors included phrases such as “incapable ruler” and “I oppose,” as well as words including “shameless,” “disagree” and “emperor” – and even the letter N for a short time.
Additionally, the list of banned terms includes the names of George Orwell’s classic books about intrusive government, 1984 and Animal Farm; the term “Xi Zedong,” a combination of Xi’s name and that of Mao Zedong. Even Winnie the Pooh, a cartoon that critics have used to mock Xi, has been included in the censored terms.
Despite concerns from western onlookers and criticism from individuals in China, China’s state-run Global Times claimed that the change does not mean “that the Chinese president will have a lifelong tenure.” The paper quoted Communist Party academic and party member Su Wei, who forwarded the notion that China needed a “stable, strong and consistent leadership” from 2020-2035.
Experts cautioned that the increased levels of censorship suggest that the Chinese government was surprised by the criticism levied by Chinese internet users, according to Charlie Smith, co-founder of GreatFire.org, an organization that helps internet users circumvent Chinese online censorship. Smith is a pseudonym used to protect his identity.
“The response from Chinese netizens indicates that Xi may have miscalculated how this would be received by the general public,” he told The Guardian. “Hence, he has asked the censors to put in overtime and things like the letter ‘N’ end up as collateral damage.”
Smith warned that the online suppression may intensify— including potentially shutting down the Chinese internet — if individuals continue to speak out online.
“If the momentum continues to build and netizens continue to look for other ways to express their displeasure with Xi, we could reach a critical point where the authorities might have to consider ‘turning off’ the internet, however they might do that,” Smith said.