The stifling censorship has left intellectuals, young white-collar workers and retired veterans of past political campaigns using roundabout ways to voice their concerns.
The day China’s ruling Communist Party unveiled a proposal to allow President Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely as Mao Zedong did a generation ago, Ma Bo was so shaken he could not sleep.
Mr Ma, a renowned writer, wrote a social media post urging the party to remember the history of unchecked one-man rule that ended in catastrophe.
“History is regressing badly …a Chinese of conscience, I cannot stay silent,” Mr Ma thundered in his post.
Censors silenced him anyway, swiftly wiping his post from the internet.
“There’s a lot of fear,” said Mr Ma, who writes under the pen name Old Ghost.
“People know that Xi’s about to become the emperor, so they don’t dare cross his path … Most people are just watching, observing.”
Once passed, the constitutional amendment would upend a system enacted by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1982 to prevent a return to the bloody excesses of a lifelong dictatorship typified by Mao Zedong’s chaotic 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.
Party media said the proposed amendment is only aimed at bringing the office of the President in line with Mr Xi’s other positions atop the party and the Central Military Commission, which do not impose term limits.
Its passage by the National People’s Congress — nearly 3,000 hand-picked delegates — is all but certain.
But observers will be looking to see how many delegates abstain from voting as an indication of the reservations the move has encountered even within the political establishment.
‘I love you without any term limits.’
After Mr Ma’s post on Chinese social media went viral two weeks ago, the 70-year-old writer decided to switch to Twitter, which can only be accessed inside China using a virtual private network, to continue issuing warnings about China moving dangerously backward.
“The police have not visited me yet,” he told The Associated Press on Friday from his Beijing home.”But I’m preparing for it.”
Mr Ma remains in the capital, but some well-known dissidents and potential troublemakers have already been “holidayed”: bundled off to faraway cities, their travel expenses paid by state security.
Retired elders from the Communist Party’s liberal wing have been warned to stay quiet.
The Government’s censorship apparatus had to spring into action after the term limit proposal was unveiled, suppressing keywords on social media ranging from “I disagree” to “shameless” to “Xi Zedong.”
Even the letter “N” was blocked after it was used as part of an equation for the number of terms Xi might serve.
But occasionally, dissent has surfaced through the cracks.
On International Women’s Day, law students at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing — Mr Xi’s alma mater — hung red banners ostensibly celebrating the school’s female students, but also satirising national politics.
“I love you without any term limits, but if there are, we can just remove them,” read one banner.
“A country can’t survive without a constitution, we can’t go on without you,” another banner stated, angering university administrators.
A student witness said the banners were quickly removed and notices posted requiring campus shops to register students who use printers to make large banners.
Chinese studying overseas have been more blunt, as posts in recent days popped up at the University of California, San Diego, with Mr Xi’s picture and the text: “Never My President.”
It spread to more than eight overseas universities, said Lebao Wu, a student at Australian National University in Canberra.
‘This is China … what can we do about it?’
Mr Xi’s confident, populist leadership style and tough attitude toward official corruption has won him a significant degree of popular support.
Sipping on a Starbucks drink in Beijing’s business district on Friday, 56-year-old Mr Zhang, who works in insurance, said citizens desired freedom, but wanted a powerful leader who could deliver stability and wealth even more.
Letting Mr Xi rule indefinitely “will strengthen the party’s leadership and offer the quickest path toward development,” Mr Zhang said.
“We need a powerful leader. People need an emperor in their hearts … The Western idea that you are not alive unless you are free has not taken root in people’s hearts.”
Ms Huang, a 35-year old IT industry worker, said her friends were concerned about China returning to the Mao era.
“I saw on [state broadcaster] CCTV’s evening news that they were saying everyone fully supports the constitutional amendments, but no-one asked us for our opinion … Our opinion is quickly censored,” she said.
“This is China …What can we do about it?”