BEIJING — China's plan for President Xi Jinping to remain in office indefinitely saw censors block satirical commentary and online searches for "two-term limit," also triggering comparisons to North Korea's ruling dynasty.
Criticism on social media platforms sparked a concerted propaganda push by Monday.
The ruling Communist Party's Central Committee proposed to remove from the constitution the expression that China's president and vice president "shall serve no more than two consecutive terms," the Xinhua News Agency reported Sunday.
That means the 64-year-old Xi, who also heads the party and the military, might never have to retire.
Term limits on officeholders have been in place since they were included in the 1982 constitution, when lifetime tenure was abolished.
"Xi Jinping has finally achieved his ultimate goal when he first embarked on Chinese politics — that is to be the Mao Zedong of the 21st century," said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, referring to the founder of communist China.
Zhang Lifan, a historian and political commentator, said the news was not unexpected, and it was hard to predict exactly how long Xi could stay on in power.
"In theory he could serve longer than Mugabe but in reality, no one is sure exactly what will happen," Zhang said, referring to Zimbabwe's former president whose four decades in office ended in November, after the army and his former political allies moved to force him out.
Xi is currently the party's general secretary, but not chairman. China's first three leaders after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949 all carried the title party chairman — Mao Zedong, Hua Guofeng and then Hu Yaobang. It has not been used since.
"Argh, we're going to become North Korea"
"Whether Xi ends up being party chairman or just remains party secretary doesn't really matter. What matters is whether he holds onto power," said Zhang Ming, a professor of political science at Renmin University of China in Beijing.
"Titles don't matter as much in China as they do in the West. Here what matters is whether you are the emperor," he added. "In China, ordinary people already consider Xi Jinping to be the emperor."
The proposal will be passed by delegates loyal to the party at next month's annual meeting of China's largely rubber-stamp parliament. It is part of a package of amendments to the country's constitution.
But it seems the party will have its work cut out trying to convince some in China that the move will not end up giving Xi too much power.
"Argh, we're going to become North Korea," wrote one Weibo user, where the Kim dynasty has ruled since the late 1940s. Kim Il Sung founded North Korea in 1948 and his family has ruled it ever since.
"We're following the example of our neighbor," wrote another user.
The comments were removed late on Sunday after Weibo, China's answer to Twitter, began blocking the search term "two-term limit."
Widely read state-run newspaper the Global Times said in an editorial the change did not mean the president will stay in office for ever, though it did not offer much explanation.
"Since reform and opening up, China, led by the Communist Party, has successfully resolved and will continue to effectively resolve the issue of party and national leadership replacement in a law-abiding and orderly manner," it said, referring to landmark economic reforms that began four decades ago.
The party's official People's Daily reprinted a long article by Xinhua news agency saying most people supported the constitutional amendments, quoting a variety of people proffering support.
"The broad part of officials and the masses say that they hoped this constitutional reform is passed," it wrote.
Jokes have also circulated on social media. One shows a picture of a condom in its wrapper under the words "doing it twice is not enough".
Others shared pictures of Winnie the Pooh, an internet meme that plays on Xi's supposed likeness to the rotund cartoon bear, an image censors have repeatedly tried to remove.
Other online commenters wrote, "Attention, the vehicle is reversing" — an automated announcement used by Chinese delivery vehicles — suggesting that China is returning to the era of Mao or even imperial rule.
Parts of the stock market took heart from the news. Chinese speculators pounced on stocks with "emperor" in their name on Monday.