The ruling Chinese Communist Party looks set to remove a two-term limit from the posts of president and vice-president, paving the way for incumbent Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely, as an "emperor in all but name."
"The Communist Party of China Central Committee proposed to remove the expression that the President and Vice-President of the People's Republic of China "shall serve no more than two consecutive terms" from the country's Constitution," state news agency Xinhua reported on Sunday.
The proposal will likely be ratified by China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), when it meets in early March, analysts told RFA.
Bao Tong, a former top aide to late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, said the changes will mean that there is nothing preventing Xi, who became president in 2013 after becoming party general secretary in 2012, from staying on in office indefinitely instead of retiring in 2023.
He said the proposal is unlikely to meet with any public opposition.
"It has at least made public a reality that wasn't previously made public: that the Chinese Communist Party does whatever it wants in China," Bao told RFA. "Not only that, but everyone is expected to go along with it, come what may."
"The country has to go along with what the party wants, dreams its dreams of dictatorship in the manner of Qin Shihuang, and of our Tang and Song dynasty forebears," he said, in a reference to China's first emperor who unified the country in 256 B.C.
Sure to be passed
Beijing political analyst Deng Jianwen said Xi could rule for decades, drawing a parallel with Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. He said opposition to the amendment is likely to be non-existent.
"This [proposal] is intended to unify the thinking of the party leadership ahead of the parliamentary sessions," he said. "There is no doubt that it will be passed by the NPC."
Hong Kong-based political analyst Ching Cheong said power is now becoming more and more concentrated in Xi's hands.
"We are seeing a greater and greater concentration of power, and at the same time, a decrease in any checks and balances," Ching said. "This is definitely a retrograde step. Not only are there to be no political reforms; we are actually headed backwards into history."
"Once this happens, I don't think anything will be able to deny that we are in danger of another Cultural Revolution," he said, referring to the decade of political turmoil and mob violence that racked the country from 1966-1976, as then supreme leader Mao Zedong turned opposing factions against each other in a political "struggle" that left an entire generation with no access to education.
He said there are concerns in Hong Kong that the promises of "a high degree of autonomy" made by China ahead of the 1997 handover will come to mean little under the new regime.
"The principle of 'one country, two systems' was based on the Communist Party's reform and opening up policy [instigated by Deng Xiaoping in 1979]," Ching said. "If China goes back to an ultra-leftist line, political tolerance will disappear and Hong Kong will have nowhere to turn."
Ching said there now seems little likelihood that Hong Kong will ever become genuinely more democratic, given developments in Beijing.
"I think it would be pretty easy if we were to say we'd be happy with elections, Chinese-style," he said, referring to Beijing's preference for vetting candidates and barring those it doesn't approve of.
A step back
Beijing-based political activist Zha Jianguo said late supreme leader Mao Zedong had remained in power for the rest of his life, after proclaiming the People's Republic on Oct. 1, 1949.
"Back in the Mao era, there was nothing in the constitution about terms of office at all," Zha said. "So Mao and [Premier] Zhou [Enlai] just kept going in office until the end."
"Deng Xiaoping did away with that system of lifelong leadership when he took power, because he had learned a lesson from this," he said. "That was progress."
Hong Kong adviser to the Chinese government Lau Siu-kai told the city's Ming Pao newspaper that he doesn't see the move as regressive, but rather a "rationalization" of the current system.
A group of overseas human rights and pro-democracy activists led by 1989 student protest leader Wang Dan warned that Xi will simply become a new "emperor," however.
"This is a complete denial of mainland China's 40-year-old policy of reform and opening up," Wang wrote in an "emergency statement."
"The lifelong system of supreme power is inseparable from tyranny, and is sure to bring great disaster to the country and its people," Wang wrote. "It means that China in future will have an emperor, a monarchy, in all but name."
The statement called on Chinese people who oppose such tyranny to "bravely stand up and offer the strongest opposition."
Xia Ming, a political science professor at the The City University of New York, said Xi has been consolidating power in his own hands, at the expense of his premier and others in the seven-member Politburo standing committee, who were previously billed by the party as a form of "collective presidency," since he took office.
"Since he took office, Xi Jinping has managed to destroy anyone in the party who is hostile to him using the anti-corruption campaign," Xia said. "At the same time, he has been pursuing human rights lawyers and dissidents and boosting the secret police surveillance state, and controls on public opinion and the media."
"The only people left now are those who are carrying his palanquin and singing his praises, so it'll be pretty easy for him to get the presidential term-limits taken out of the constitution," he said.
Social media comments on the topic were heavily censored in China's tightly controlled internet, but some users managed to post comments before they were deleted.
"My first reaction was to think of [Russian president] Vladimir Putin," one comment read, while other comments drew parallels with the North Korean regime, saying "we are following the example of our neighbor."
"Surely he can't stay in office forever? We really will be shouting 'Long Live the Emperor!'" wrote another commenter.
Searches for the keyword "two-term limit" were blocked on the Twitter-like platform Sina Weibo late on Sunday.
The Global Times newspaper, sister paper of party mouthpiece the People's Daily, quoted party school professor Su Wei as saying that China needs "a stable, strong and consistent" leadership.
"Removal of the section of the clause about the presidency in the Constitution is serving the most important and fundamental national interest and the Party's historic mission," Su told the paper.
For his part, Xi has warned that what is written in the constitution can't be overridden by anyone.
"No organization or individual has the power to overstep the constitution or the law," Xinhua quoted him as saying, reporting that Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era would also likely be inscribed into the constitution.
Xi also plans to formalize his anti-corruption campaigns with a nationwide network of "supervisory commissions" to "supervise, investigate and punish" officials, the agency said.
The supervisory commissions will "independently exercise their power of supervision and not be subject to interference by any administrative organ, public organization or individual," Xinhua cited the proposals as saying.
The NPC's annual session convenes in Beijing on March 5.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Dai Weisen for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long, Gao Shan and Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.