The ruling Chinese Communist Party's plan to remove a two-term limit from the posts of president and vice president, paving the way for incumbent Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely, have provoked a surge in the number of people wanting to leave the country, amid strong opposition among the country's more outspoken dissidents.
The party said at the weekend it would place the proposals before the annual session of its rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC) next week, where political analysts say they will almost certainly be ratified.
Government censors moved swiftly to erase public reaction from social media, banning keyword searches for a huge array of phrases, including those containing the words "emperor," "personality cult," and "lifelong tenure."
Words forming a pun relating to imperial or long-term rule, or historical parallels with late supreme leader Chairman Mao Zedong or imperial Chinese dynasties were also blocked.
But there were other signs that the news has sent shock waves through China's burgeoning middle classes, with a huge surge in queries relating to emigration recorded by the Chinese search engine Baidu, and overseas-linked realtors and immigration advisers reporting a sudden boost in interest since the announcement.
Baidu said queries relating to emigration and visas for other countries had risen tenfold in the wake of the announcement.
A Canada-based realtor surnamed Wang with ties to the southwestern city of Chengdu said business had suddenly boomed in the days since the announcement on terms in office last Sunday.
"Since the announcement was made, the amount of consultations have increased greatly compared with the same period in normal times," Wang told RFA. "The numbers have skyrocketed, all relating to emigration."
"For example, they increased from around 2,000 to 5,000, to more than 7,000," she said. "The whole of last year was pretty sluggish, and now we've had this huge boost in inquiries since the announcement."
'Everyone is doing overtime'
An employee surnamed Chen at an immigration consultancy in Beijing said their workload has risen sharply since the announcement, too.
"It has doubled in the past couple of days," Chen said. "Our workload is now two or three times what we are used to."
"For example, where we would get around 10-20 inquiries in the space of a day before, now we can get 30 or as many as 50 inquiries," she said. "Everyone is doing overtime."
"The reason people are giving is a new policy announced by the government and the amendment of the constitution by our president to enable him to remain in office," Chen said. "A lot of things in this country will be affected by this, and it has made people who do business and some in government posts panic a bit."
According to Chen, many of the inquiries are coming from highly qualified or creative people who are hoping to emigrate under special skills provisions, or those hoping to emigrate using investment visas.
An employee at a second immigration consultancy confirmed Chen's account, linking a surge in inquiries to the few days since the Feb. 25 announcement.
"As everyone wants to emigrate to one, or at most a handful of countries, there may be some queuing situations that arise," the employee said.
"Nobody knows exactly what will happen," he said. "We just know that there is currently an increasing in consultations and sign-up rates."
A resident of Hubei surnamed Zeng said people are afraid of a return to the politics of the Mao era.
"All I know is that Xi Jinping wants to make himself an emperor, and a lot of people now want to get out of here, mostly the middle classes," Zeng said. "Perhaps the Communist Party won't do anything if tens of millions leave, but if hundreds of millions try to make a run for it, what then?"
Shandong-based rights activist Liu Jiwei said he knows a lot of people on lower incomes who are planning to leave, too.
"I know a lot of people who have reacted against this very strongly," Liu said. "There are plenty of people who can't get an investment visa or a skills-based visa who are grabbing a few hundred thousand yuan and booking onto tours in Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia, then to Africa and Europe."
"When they have been out of the country three times, then they apply to the United States [on a tourist visa], after which they won't leave," Liu said.
An 'epoch-making' rule
Former China Youth Daily editor Li Datong was among the first dissenting voices to be raised in public, with an open letter posted and forwarded on the social media platform WeChat, calling on NPC delegates to oppose the move with their votes.
"The 1982 Constitution imposed a limit on Chinese leaders of no more than two terms in office, after the Chinese Communist Party and the entire nation had been through the huge pain and suffering of the Cultural Revolution," Li wrote.
He said the new rule had been an "epoch-making" one, and an effective legal curb on individuals becoming dictators.
"This reversal of history will once more sow the seeds of turmoil in China, and set in motion unlimited harm," Li wrote. "Please vote against it, in the highest interests of the Chinese people, and China's long-term peace and stability."
Li's letter was later joined by similar statements from fellow dissidents.
Jin Zhong, editor of Hong Kong's Open Magazine and a veteran publisher of books on China, said Xi's announcement heralded a more "extreme" era in Chinese politics.
"Since Xi Jinping took power, he has become more and more politically extreme ... purging and cleansing so-called reformers," Jin told RFA.
"His goal has been get to the point where he can establish himself as supreme authority, and consolidate his personal dictatorship," he said.
There are also concerns that a new form of anti-corruption police, a "supervisory body," will soon enable Xi to pursue his political opponents in every walk of life, not just within party ranks.
"It ... is in fact an illegitimate extension of administrative power, and is now to be included in the constitution in order to give it legal status," U.S.-based lawyer Ye Ning told RFA. "They will have the right to detain citizens, which violates the relevant provisions of ... criminal law, and the constitution, which states that an administrative organ may not illegally infringe the personal freedom of citizens."
Xia Ming, a political science professor at the The City University of New York, said the proposed new commission will further blur the line between ruling party and government.
"The commission further obscures the difference between the party and the state, further integrates party and the state, to the extent that the political system is completely dominated by the party," Xia said.
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