China’s Coronavirus Crisis Is Just Beginning

President Xi Jinping of China in Beijing on Monday. As propagandists were preparing a book praising his handling of the epidemic, two well-known critics of China’s party-state published searing analyses of what the outbreak has really exposed. Credit Yan Yan/Xinhua, via Getty Images
President Xi Jinping of China in Beijing on Monday. As propagandists were preparing a book praising his handling of the epidemic, two well-known critics of China’s party-state published searing analyses of what the outbreak has really exposed. Credit Yan Yan/Xinhua, via Getty Images

The Chinese Communist Party has always been quick to congratulate itself for how it deals with crises, be they natural disasters or catastrophes of its own making. The coronavirus epidemic is no exception, even now that it has become a global health emergency. The government of China’s first response to the deadly virus, detected in late December, was dilatory at best, willfully negligent at worst, and yet the party promptly lavished praise on the state, particularly on China’s president, Xi Jinping.

“Seeking Truth”, the party’s leading theoretic journal, recently celebrated the fact that the “People’s Leader” had handled the disaster with unflappable confidence, proving himself to be not only “the guiding light of China and the backbone of 1.4 billion Chinese”, but also a “calming balm” for a world whose nerves had been jangled by the outbreak.

Judging by the hyperbole, it would seem that the party’s or the president’s own nerves have been badly jangled. With good reason. Not since Charter 08, the manifesto by Liu Xiaobo and other activists that called for constitutional reform more than a decade ago, has the Chinese Communist Party faced such a pointed challenge from its political critics.

In early February, as party propagandists were preparing a book-length paean to Mr. Xi’s crisis management skills — “A Battle Against Epidemic: China Combating Covid-19 in 2020” (also to be published in English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic) — two well-known critics of China’s party-state published searing analyses of what the outbreak really exposed.

Xu Zhangrun, a law professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, posted this assessment online: “The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance; the fragile and vacuous heart of the jittering edifice of state has thereby been revealed as never before”.

Since early 2016, Xu Zhangrun has been publishing speeches and essays warning of the perils that China is inviting by turning away from substantive economic and political reform and instead reaffirming the Chinese Communist Party’s dominance. His work is usually widely read in China — until it is censored. But thanks to its broad circulation in international Chinese-language media, it gets recirculated on the mainland in the form of digital samizdat, and is frequently quoted in WeChat discussions.

In what arguably is his most famous critique of the Xi government, which was published online in China in July 2018, Xu Zhangrun had written: “The gunpowder-like stench of militant ideology has become stronger”. He had decried attempts to mythologize Mr. Xi like Mao Zedong was many decades before: “We need to ask why a vast country like China, one that was previously so ruinously served by a personality cult simply has no resistance to this new cult”.

And ruinously it is served again today, with the coronavirus epidemic. Xu Zhangrun wrote of Mr. Xi in his essay last month: “The price for his overarching egotism is now being paid by the nation as a whole”.

For Xu Zhangrun, the current crisis is only the latest in a series of policy failures — including Beijing’s handling of the trade war with the United States and the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong — that highlight the deficiencies of an authoritarian system that has increasingly concentrated power in the hands of one man:

“Don’t you see that although everyone looks to The One for the nod of approval, The One himself is clueless and has no substantive understanding of rulership and governance, despite his undeniable talent for playing power politics?”

“The political life of the nation is in a state of collapse and the ethical core of the system has been hollowed out”, Xu Zhangrun declares in his elegant signature prose, which rings with classical cadences. “The ultimate concern of China’s polity today and that of its highest leader is to preserve at all costs the privileged position of the Communist Party and to maintain ruthlessly its hold on power”.

The same day that essay was published, Feb. 4, another powerful, sarcastic analysis of China’s party-state appeared online. In an open letter addressed to Mr. Xi, the legal expert and rights activist Xu Zhiyong called on the president to take responsibility for numerous political missteps and step down.

Xu Zhiyong — who previously spent nearly four years in jail after being sentenced for “gathering crowds to disrupt public order” — was on the run when he published this text. He was located by the police in Guangzhou, southern China, on Feb. 15 and has been in detention, his whereabouts unknown, since.

Xu Zhiyong’s essay lambasts the president for promoting a vision for China’s future that is, in fact, a muddle of contradictions:

“Where do you really think you are taking China? Do you have any clue yourself? You talk up the Reform and Opening-Up policy at the same time that you are trying to resuscitate the corpse of Marxism-Leninism”.

Also: “Your lack of confidence means that everywhere you look you see threats and you crank up ‘stability maintenance’ measures in response”.

The term “stability maintenance” (維穩, wei wen) is shorthand for a vast, well-established system devoted to maintaining the Chinese Communist Party’s power and control over society. With a budget that outstrips the military’s, this domestic security machinery comprises a pervasive network of paramilitary forces, the police, local officials, neighborhood committees, informal community spies, internet police and censors, secret service agents and watchdogs, as well as everyday bureaucrat-monitors. Used, for example, to quell any sign of uprisings in Tibetan areas of the country and popular discontent following the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, this network has been working full-throttle since the first coronavirus infection was announced in the central city of Wuhan in December.

It was “in the name of ‘stability maintenance,’” Xu Zhiyong’s essay charges, that “the Public Security Bureau of Wuhan threatened and denigrated doctors who tried to reveal the truth about the coronavirus”. The state-controlled China Central Television in Beijing, he adds, “offered support by condemning rumormongers and decried the doctors’ legitimate freedom to express their views. The cover-up in Wuhan led directly to what is now a national disaster”.

And that was no mishap. Xu Zhiyong warns that what is happening in Xinjiang today — an extensive surveillance network; large numbers of Uighurs “incarcerated in ‘educational training centers’ on the most spurious grounds” — could soon become the norm for the rest of China. “What kind of country has ever, anywhere, been run like this?”

What’s more, he suggests, the system undermines itself: “Stability at all costs — at the price of the freedom of the Chinese people, their dignity, as well as their pursuit of happiness? Yet, for all of that, is the system really stable?”

Xu Zhangrun, too, points out its inherent paradoxes, notably the ones revealed by the constant expansion of “big data totalitarianism” and “WeChat terror”. “The Chinese body politic is riven by a new canker”, he declares, “but it is an infection germane to the system itself”.

Where, then, is the country headed as it increasingly stymies the rights of its citizens and stifles civil society?

For Xu Zhangrun:

“The authorities have blocked off all possible roads that may imaginably lead to positive change. We must seriously doubt whether any form of peaceful transition might now even be conceivable”.

For Xu Zhiyong:

“I’m deeply concerned about our nation’s future; I’m afraid that a system that is so tightly wound up is a dangerously brittle one; and, I’m worried that there is no meaningful or substantive form of civil society that can deal with the situation”.

Yet Xu Zhiyong rejects the view promoted by the Chinese Communist Party and some of its fellow-travelers that a country as vast and complex as China is unsuited to constitutional rule and democracy: “There are those who argue that China needs a strongman to lead it. I would posit that the kind of authority figure we need should be more like Chiang Ching-kuo”, he writes, referring to the president of Taiwan from 1978 to 1988 (and son of Chiang Kai-shek) who steered the country toward the end of martial law and undertook the reforms that eventually transformed it into a modern democracy. But instead, says Xu Zhiyong, addressing Mr. Xi, “With your move away from collective leadership in favor of your own one-man dictatorship, you are driving the country backward”.

The president of China, shortly after coming to power in late 2012, famously quoted an ancient Chinese poem about the fall of a kingdom to explain the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991: No “True Men” (or “Real Men”, in some translations) had come forward to defend it. Now, Xu Zhiyong was pointing out caustically to Mr. Xi:

“How can you expect there to be a ‘True Man’ when you, The Revered One, sit at the pinnacle with millions fawning at the foot of your throne? Autocracy encourages sycophants to crowd around the Emperor, but this particular Emperor’s new clothes are on full display for all to see. Yet, even now, the people of China dare not ‘comment inappropriately’ about what is in front of them”.

“Well”, Xu Zhiyong continues, “I’m like that kid who blurted out the truth: The Emperor has no clothes!”

Indeed. He and Xu Zhangrun have raised their voices at a moment of national emergency, both well aware that their warnings may prove not only futile, but also, for them, suicidal.

Xu Zhangrun’s essay ends with a plea:

“Faced with the crisis of the coronavirus, confronting this disordered world, I join my compatriots — the 1.4 billion men and women, brothers and sisters of China, the countless multitudes who have no way of fleeing this land — and I call on them: rage against this injustice; let your lives burn with a flame of decency; break through the stultifying darkness and welcome the dawn”.

A few days after the publication of these texts, Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist and early whistle-blower in Wuhan, died, having been infected by the virus. The outpouring of grief expressed throughout China took the party aback.

And so it tried to regain control of the narrative by casting Dr. Li as a brave soldier in the “people’s war” against the virus: He and other health care workers infected on the job — their number now exceeds 3,300 people — were praised for making sacrifices for the party, the state and the people, in that order.

Meanwhile, citizen journalists who had been reporting independently from Wuhan were disappearing. And by mid-February, Xu Zhangrun was incommunicado in Beijing and Xu Zhiyong had been detained.

On Feb. 20, the official Xinhua News Agency published an opinion piece entitled “Truth Telling is a Precious Virtue”. It admonished: “One must pursue truth and not feel intimidated by those in authority. It requires a selflessness that allows one to cry out in protest and speak up in the best interests of the people”. The public’s reaction online was explosive; many people denounced the essay’s hypocrisy.

A new crisis generates new dissent, followed by repression — and then more dissent.

As both Xu Zhangrun and Xu Zhiyong have pointed out, it is the canker in China’s body politic that turned the coronavirus outbreak into a health crisis far worse than it needed to become. And the epidemic, in turn, has only exposed the extent of the party-state’s sickness.

Geremie R. Barmé is an historian and the editor of China Heritage. He translated from the Chinese the two recent essays by Xu Zhangrun and Xu Zhiyong; they are available in full in English on ChinaFile.

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