LAST October Xi Jinping was dubbed - on the front page of The Economist, no less - as ‘the world’s most powerful man’. His grip on China, the magazine said, was tighter than any leader since Mao’s, and his China was a ‘dominant engine of global growth’.

Last week the country’s Communist Party moved to abolish presidential term limits. Xi is due to stand down in 2023 at the expiry of his second term, but he now looks set to become ‘dictator for life’, in the words of some China experts.

The plan is one of several other constitutional amendments expected to be rubber-stamped by the party-controlled National People’s Congress on March 5.

The move, says a pro-Beijing newspaper, is designed to “ensure people lead happier lives”, but it has shocked Chinese dissidents as well as many China experts in the West.

The New Yorker said it “marks the clearest expression of Xi’s core beliefs—his impatience with affectations of liberalism, his belief in the Communist Party’s moral superiority, and his unromantic conception of politics as a contest between force and the forced.”

But Xi’s resolve to remain in power beyond 2023, one China-watcher cautioned, “may also be about self-preservation. He has purged, humiliated and jailed so many powerful foes that China’s best-known political prison is reportedly packed to the rafters. He may see everlasting power as the only way to prevent vengeful rivals one day condemning him to a similar fate.”

The Washington Post said the move was the “strongest sign yet that Xi intends to hold on to power, potentially taking China back toward one-man rule … The potential significance of Xi’s continuing rule goes well beyond China itself. As his country strives to take a more assertive role in international affairs, the rest of the world — including the United States — will be dealing with a confident president unchallenged at home.”

China’s colossal army of internet censors has been hyper-vigilant in its efforts to detect any online criticism of the plan. The China Digital Times said that the list of banned words or expressions included the Chinese for ‘disagree’, ‘shameless’, ‘lifelong’ and ‘personality cult’. The title of two classic novels by George Orwell, Animal Farm and 1984, met a similar fate, as did memes of Winnie the Pooh, posted by citizens as a way of drawing attention to the similarity between Pooh and Xi, referencing the president’s chubbiness.

In a blog post Professor Mair, a renowned Sinologist, said it had been expected that China would ‘reform and open up’ - an official party policy since December 1978.

“Instead, all indications from the first five years of Xi's regime and the newly announced policy changes regarding Xi Jinping thought and governance are that China has jumped right back to the 1950s in terms of policies and procedures. Naturally, many people are deeply dismayed by this unwelcome turn of events. Indeed, for as long as I've been studying China and observing Chinese affairs, I've never witnessed so much opposition to the CCP as what I've been seeing and hearing during the last couple of days — except for the months leading up to the Tiananmen Massacre of June 4, 1989.”

The plan has aroused rare displays of public dissent in China. In an open letter Li Datong, a former editor of the China Youth Daily, claimed that abolishing term limits for the president and the vice-president would sow the seeds of chaos. He said he was too old to be afraid of the authorities: "As a Chinese citizen, I have to fulfil my responsibility and tell the delegates my opinion. I don't care what these delegates will do. It's not like the whole country agrees with the amendment, but everyone has been silenced. I couldn't bear it any more. I was discussing with my friends and we were enraged. We have to voice our opposition.”

He added: "Even if the amendment is passed, it doesn't matter. History is often like this - we make two steps forward and one step back. But this is against the tide of civilisation and won't stand the test of time. It will be considered a farce in Chinese history in the future.” A well-known Chinese businesswoman, Wang Ying, publicly objected to the proposal as an “outright betrayal.” Other people have been equally outspoken.

Xi, 64, is the son of a Communist Party notable. He studied chemical engineering at university, and held key posts in various Chinese provinces earlier in his career. Today he is not only the all-powerful president of China but is also General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. His time in office has been marked by a long crackdown on official corruption.

He visited Britain in October 2015, when he and his host, the then Prime Minister David Cameron, enjoyed a pint of traditional ale at a pub close to Chequers.

Some observers in the west see the newly-announced abolition of the two-term rule as part of a worrying trend towards authoritarian regimes, of the kind already seen in Russia, Turkey and the Philippines.

The New York Times in a rather chilling aside noted that the abolition move may have hastened “what many scholars believe is China’s collision course with the forces of history it has so long managed to evade.”