BEIJING (AP) — Orville Schell, a longtime China expert, has vivid memories of his first trip to the country back in 1975. Mao Zedong was leading China through the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, and Chinese were being shamed, beaten and even killed for perceived political mistakes.
Things were vastly different when he returned four years later. Mao was dead, and the country was pulling itself together under reformist Deng Xiaoping. So radical was the transformation that some Chinese felt emboldened enough to plaster posters on a wall in central Beijing criticizing past excesses and advocating democracy.
“China had suddenly gone from being this implacable enemy that was closed to any contact to being quite open and receptive to interacting,” recalled Schell, now the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the New York-based Asia Society.
That opening and Deng’s subsequent market-style economic reforms fueled speculation that China was destined to become a democracy.
The rise of President Xi Jinping, who is now poised to rule indefinitely after China’s rubber-stamp legislature voted Sunday to eliminate presidential term limits, has changed all that, a growing number of Western analysts say.
“In the past, both sides presumed China was trying to become more democratic,” Schell said. “What Xi marks so clearly is that there is no longer the pretension … that China is becoming more democratic and open.”
Under Deng, the ruling Communist Party began to allow small-scale free enterprise and eased social controls.
To ensure the party’s survival, leaders embarked on a bold experiment in the 1990s to create a formal system of succession. The Chinese public still had no voice in picking their government, but leaders would share power and step down after fixed terms.
Even that has been swept aside under Xi, who is poised to rule for as long as he wants as China’s most powerful leader since Mao. The move to scrap presidential limits revives the specter of one-man rule that Deng tried to ward off when he abolished lifetime tenure in 1982.
“The control of public opinion in China right now is much looser than it was in Mao’s day, but it’s much tighter than it was under Deng Xiaoping,” said Sidney Rittenberg, 96, one of the few Americans to have personally known Mao.
Still, he predicted China would never return to earlier periods of isolation, citing the economy’s dependence on openness to the world, Beijing’s rising global status and greater awareness among Chinese citizens.
“It’s not so easy to turn the clock back just by changing the constitution,” he said.
According to Rittenberg, becoming China’s ruler resulted in a “very clear” change in Mao’s personality. He endured the shift, painfully, when he was accused of being part of a foreign spy ring. He spent 16 years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement.
It is precisely a repetition of that history that some still fear.
“My generation has lived through Mao,” said Li Datong, a former editor for the state-run China Youth Daily. “That era is over. How can we possibly go back to that?”
Even if today’s China remains far removed from the chaos of Mao’s time, it is likewise distant from the massive student-led protests of 1989, when the country had its closest brush with a shift to greater democracy.
The demonstrations, centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, gave voice to pent-up frustrations about corruption and a stifling political system. Deng ordered a violent crackdown that killed hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people.
But even after the crackdown, the party eased controls on travel and the economy began to pick up speed. Reformists remained optimistic that political liberalization might follow.
Hopes rose ahead of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, cast by the party as a coming-out for a confident, modern China.
“One of the things people hoped for in the run-up to the Olympics was that the exposure to the outside would help to convince more Chinese people and lawmakers that the way things are done outside China isn’t necessarily scary or dangerous,” said Jeremiah Jenne, a writer and Chinese history teacher in Beijing.
But the global financial crisis that year prompted the leadership to “rethink the extent to which China should be open to the world,” Jenne said.
Foreign advocates of democracy had hoped the internet, cellphones and other emerging technologies would erode party control. Instead, Chinese leaders invested heavily in developing web filters and using the internet and video surveillance networks to strengthen their ability to keep tabs on the public.
Since assuming the party leadership in 2012, Xi has overseen a further diminishment of civil society, jailing or otherwise silencing writers, activists and human rights lawyers. Online discussion of the elimination of term limits has been heavily censored.
Beijing has long argued that Western-style democracy is not appropriate for China. It cites political and bureaucratic logjams in Washington and elsewhere as evidence of the superiority of its Marxist-Leninist rule.
“Some key parts of the Western value system are collapsing,” said an editorial in the Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper. “Democracy, which has been explored and practiced by Western societies for hundreds of years, is ulcerating.”
Many Western analysts have likewise ceased envisioning a democratic China.
“We see now that history is not ineluctably moving toward democracy,” said Schell, the American China expert. “History is just moving where it moves.”
Follow Yanan Wang on Twitter at https://twitter.com/yananw