BEIJING • China's top leader, Mr 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 President Xi's sweeping control.
Censorship and punishment have muted dissent in China since Mr Xi came to power. So Professor Xu Zhangrun, a legal expert at Tsinghua University, 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," Prof Xu wrote in an essay on the website of the Unirule Institute of Economics, an independent think-tank in Beijing.
Prof Xu urged Chinese lawmakers to reverse the vote in March that abolished a two-term limit on Mr Xi's tenure as president. That near-unanimous vote of the party-dominated legislature opened the way for Mr Xi, in office since late 2012, to retain power for another decade or longer as president, Communist Party leader and chairman of the military commission.
The essay appeared as a burst of troubles has given a focus for criticisms of Mr Xi's strongman ways, and it has spread through Chinese social media, despite censorship.
"Xu has written a challenge from the cultural heart of China to the political heart of the Communist Party," said Prof Geremie Barme, an Australian scholar of China who is translating Prof Xu's essay.
Over recent months, China has been grappling with a growing trade war with the United States. Some Chinese foreign policy experts have suggested that the spat could have been contained if Beijing had been more flexible and moved faster to douse triumphalist statements about its goals.
"China should adopt a lower profile in dealing with international issues," Peking University professor of international relations Jia Qingguo said at a recent forum in Beijing.
Revelations about faulty vaccines given to hundreds of thousands of children have ignited public anger and protests, especially because the government promised to clean up after similar previous scandals.
On Tuesday, Mr Xi convened a meeting of the Politburo - a 25-member top party leadership council - that warned of economic tests while promising to keep growth steady.
Party insiders and foreign experts said misgivings about Mr Xi's policies appeared to be building among intellectuals and liberal-minded former officials. They are likely to seize on the 40th anniversary of a party meeting in 1978 that is now seen as inaugurating Deng Xiaoping's era of "reform and opening up".
Prof Xu's future may now become a test of whether Mr Xi will display greater tolerance of criticism. "I have said what I must and am in the hands of fate," he wrote at the end of his essay. "Heaven will decide whether we rise or fall."