BEIJING — China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, seemed indomitable when lawmakers abolished a term limit on his power early this year. But months later, China has been struck by economic headwinds, a vaccine scandal and trade battles with Washington, emboldening critics in Beijing who are questioning Mr. Xi’s sweeping control.
Censorship and punishment have muted dissent in China since Mr. Xi came to power. So Xu Zhangrun, a law professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, took a big risk last week when he delivered the fiercest denunciation yet from a Chinese academic of Mr. Xi’s hard-line policies, revival of Communist orthodoxies and adulatory propaganda image.
“People nationwide, including the entire bureaucratic elite, feel once more lost in uncertainty about the direction of the country and about their own personal security, and the rising anxiety has spread into a degree of panic throughout society,” Professor Xu wrote in an essay that appeared on the website of Unirule Institute of Economics, an independent think tank in Beijing that was recently forced out of its office.
Other less damning criticisms, petitions and jibes about Mr. Xi’s policies have also spread, often shared through WeChat, a popular social media service. But this long, erudite jeremiad from a prestigious professor has carried more weight.
“Xu has written a challenge from the cultural heart of China to the political heart of the Communist Party,” said Geremie R. Barmé, an Australian scholar of China who is translating Mr. Xu’s essay. “Its content and culturally powerful style will resonate deeply throughout the Chinese party-state system, as well as in the society more broadly.”