HONG KONG -- In his 10,000-word essay decrying China's increasing authoritarianism, Xu Zhangrun studiously avoided mentioning President Xi Jinping by name. But his readers -- and China's censors -- did not need it spelled out for them.
"After 40 years of reform and opening up, I never thought I would witness the re-emergence of a cult of personality of our leader in the divine land of China," wrote Xu, a law professor at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University.
The essay, "Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes," caused a stir in China, despite authorities' attempts to scrub it from the Chinese web.
Its publication in July came just four months after China scrapped term limits for the president, paving the way for Xi to remain president indefinitely. Xu expressed alarm over how "the only visible, tangible, and presentable fruit of political reform" implemented under Deng Xiaoping was "written off at one stroke."
The danger of personality cults and the need for term limits for leaders were hard lessons learned from the disasters of the Cultural Revolution and other political campaigns under Mao Zedong, who ruled China from 1949 until his death in 1976.
While China has made outstanding economic progress over the last four decades, advances in civil liberties have been conspicuously lacking.
One reason for this was a failure of Western governments to grasp fundamental differences between China and its neighbors, according to Kenneth Roth, executive director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"In developing their policy toward China, many governments misread the experience of South Korea and Taiwan," Roth said. The promise of U.S. military support to defend against North Korea and China was a powerful incentive for South Korea and Taiwan to embrace democracy. Political pressure from Washington was "an essential element of what happened" in those cases. That same political pressure could not be applied to China.
Western governments and businesses also "wrongly believed that as a country expands its economy, democracy and human rights will naturally follow," Roth said.
Taiwan lifted martial law and legalized opposition parties in 1987, and South Korea held its first democratic presidential election the same year. China, by contrast, brutally suppressed unarmed demonstrators in the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Nearly three decades later, the situation remains grim, with Xi extending his campaign against dissent to include human rights lawyers. In an episode widely referred to as the "709 crackdown," hundreds of legal professionals were detained and imprisoned on July 9, 2015. Many remain missing.
China ranks 135th out of 162 on the Human Freedom Index compiled by the Fraser Institute of Canada, while Taiwan comes in 10th -- tied with Norway and Finland -- and South Korea 27th.
Beijing rejects criticism from Western human rights groups. Xi, in a letter commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, said "the greatest human right of all is for people's life to be happy." He added that China's economic development has led to the "improvement of the daily livelihood of millions of Chinese people."
Renee Xia, international director at Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, counters that China's reform and opening up was "a calculated move for the regime's own survival [that] greatly strengthened the state power in ways that Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping never dreamed of."
China's massive economic clout, she argued, has enabled Beijing to create a police state at home and aggressively assert itself abroad.
A striking example of this new assertiveness was the abduction of five Hong Kong booksellers in 2015, including Swedish national Gui Minhai. Gui, who was a major shareholder of Hong Kong's Causeway Bay Books, was abducted from his home in Thailand and reemerged three months later on state-owned media claiming he had returned to China of his own free will.
Sophie Richardson, China director at HRW, told Nikkei that "the rest of the world has to realize it's dealing with a much more aggressive, effective, rights-disrespecting China" under Xi.