Nothing to Xi here: China’s deadly cover-ups must stop
The deplorable reality is evident and the countdown has started — the time to establish a meaningful constitutional order is upon us.
— Xu Zhangrun, professor of law in Beijing, who is under house arrest for criticising China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
The single most significant thing about the COVID-19 scare, with the greatest respect for those who have suffered from it or have worked heroically to contain it, is the light it has shone on the need for political reform in China.
The epidemic has taken the lives of at least 2000 people. Given the unreliability of Communist Party data, this could be a serious underestimate. In any case, the outbreak led to a near economic shutdown and a viral storm of outrage within China at Communist Party censorship, corruption and bureaucratic ineptitude.
Analogies have been drawn with the Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986, perhaps in part because millions have recently been watching Johan Renck’s HBO TV series Chernobyl: What is the Cost of Lies?
However, various pundits — from Princeton University’s Rory Truex to the Asia Society’s Kevin Rudd — have responded that COVID-19 will not trigger political change in China as Chernobyl did in the Soviet Union.
Truex is fatalistic about party rule and simply “expects” it to continue, while hoping for some internal debate within the party between “hard” and “soft” authoritarians. Rudd, on the other hand, declares the viral storm will leave politics unchanged in China. He extols the grand vision of Xi Jinping, which he seems to admire, and, rather like Paul Keating in Sydney late last year, breathes not a word of criticism of Xi or the Communist Party.
But China’s future is important to us all, and in significant ways Xi and the party are to blame for the crisis. The most eloquent and honest voices in China are telling us that what the likes of Truex are saying is a cop-out and what Rudd is saying is a betrayal of the Chinese people. Rudd’s stance is, in fact, in all the circumstances, a moral and geopolitical scandal.
The suffocation of freedom of information, the stifling of civil society, the suppression of political dissent and the ineradicable vices of Leninist governance are the issue. But you’d never guess that from the way our erstwhile prime minister and foreign minister raises high the banner of “Xi Jinping Thought”. Xi, in fact, has been shown up by this crisis and needs to be cut down to size. Rudd, clearly, is not the man for the job.
The man of the moment is a professor of constitutional law in Beijing, Xu Zhangrun, 57, who earlier this month wrote a withering critique of the “clueless” Xi. It has been translated by Australian Sinologist Geremie Barme and should be the source of headlines and street banners around the world. Xu wrote in a long, nine-point essay:
The last seven decades have taught the people many lessons about the hazards of totalitarian government. This time around, it is the virus that is proving the point once more and in the most undeniable fashion … The way to turn things around, to re-establish the image of China as a responsible major power that can shoulder its global responsibilities, demands that the internal affairs of this country must be sorted out; that can only happen if we as a people join together on the Great Way of Universal Human Values.
For writing this, he has been put under house arrest. That’s par for the course in China. The party has been doing that to all manner of dissidents and brave souls for 70 years. It has killed untold numbers of them. Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo died at its hands for making similar demands.
But there is a far wider resonance to Xu’s critique of Xi and the party than that within China proper. As Xu himself points out, the democratic upheaval in Hong Kong last year and the elections in Taiwan last month — in which the Democratic Progressive Party, led by Tsai Ing-wen, won in a landslide — belong in the same context as the COVID-19 crisis. Both demonstrated that democratic norms are the common aspiration of the most civilised and affluent citizens of the Chinese world. Good Chinese leadership would foster, not suppress, them.
Xi, clearly, is not the man for this job.
Xu, who did his PhD in Australia at the University of Melbourne, lambastes Xi’s handling of the massive revolt in Hong Kong:
Developments in Hong Kong and Taiwan showed how the periphery can suddenly throw the centre off kilter. Events in those places have been so dramatic, in fact, that they may even offer a ray of hope. For it is perhaps, only perhaps, that with such a path forward — one in which the periphery gradually influences the centre and makes imaginable some kind of peaceful transition — that a particular Chinese way out of our present political conundrum may be found.
Xi, conversely, has threatened to break bones and crush bodies to suppress the protests in Hong Kong and to take Taiwan by military force. Our unctuous ex-pollies and diplomats who denounce criticism of Xi’s domestic and foreign policies as “racist” — as Rudd and Geoff Raby have done — might ponder what “race” Xu springs from.
Xu acknowledges that, the party being what it is, he may soon pay with his life for his candour about the dictatorship in China. However, he declares that, regardless, what he has written had to be put out there.
He quotes Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle:
I will not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Those lines have a fiercely elegiac meaning as people continue to die of COVID-19, the party continues to lie and Xu faces a grim fate. A book of his essays, Six Chapters, from the 2018 Year of the Dog, will be published in Hong Kong in May this year.
But let’s reflect on what should be done to remedy the political situation in China. In case after case — the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic (2003), the Sichuan earthquake and baby formula scandal (2008), and the current crisis — the party has behaved in the same mendacious, self-protective, ham-fisted and irresponsible manner. This has been exacerbated in the present case because, under Xi’s ever-tightening dictatorial and hyper-centralist rule, civil society and freedom of information have been screwed down tighter and tighter. The consequence is not only the strangulation of responsible early warning systems but also the destruction of the capacity of non-party civil associations to respond when crises occur.
As Xu wrote:
Censorship increases by the day, the impact of which is to weaken and obliterate those very things that can and should play a positive role in alerting society to critical issues. In response to the coronavirus, for instance, at first the authorities shut down public disquiet and outspoken commentary via censorship; they then simply shut down entire cities.
Though you would never guess this from listening to or reading Keating, Rudd or Raby and their ilk, such counter-productive approaches stand in stark contrast with the flourishing condition of civil associations in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The populations of these two modest polities have set an example that would immeasurably improve things in the PRC, if only the party didn’t insist on monopolising responses at every level.
As veteran correspondent Li Yuan, a graduate of Columbia University who once worked for China’s Xinhua News Agency but now works in Hong Kong for The New York Times, wrote recently:
Beijing has shown the world that it can shut down entire cities, build a hospital in 10 days and keep 1.4 billion people at home for weeks. But it has also shown a glaring weakness that imperils lives and threatens efforts to contain the outbreak: It is unable to work with its own people.
The coronavirus outbreak has exposed the jarring absence in China of a vibrant civil society — the civic associations like business groups, non-profit organisations, charities and churches that bring people together without involving the government.
Compare this with Rudd’s tendentious indulgence of Xi’s neo-Maoist dictatorial regime from February 8:
Xi wields near-absolute political power over China’s Marxist-Leninist state. Arguably, only an authoritarian regime could have pursued the draconian methods that China has in trying to control the virus since January. Only time will tell how effective these measures ultimately prove to be. What is certain, however, is that the crisis, once resolved, will not change how China is governed in the future.
What is at issue here, in short, is not simply the immediate problem. It is the future of China and its place within the wider Chinese world and the world at large. In that sense, a great deal has been thrown into high relief by the drama of the past six weeks. Xu and Li are fully alive to it. Rudd is blind to it.
Whether or not COVID-19 has the same political impact in China that Chernobyl had in the Soviet Union, it has had the same clarifying effect with regard to the political system at the centre of the crisis. It has shown that Xi has China on the wrong path, a nightmare path. For the sake of the “people’s” republic he dominates, liberation and constitutional reform are badly needed. They must begin with openings for civil society and legal political opposition, as they did in Taiwan. A China moving in that direction would gain a more honoured and trusted place within the comity of nations. Even Xi should want that.
Paul Monk (paulmonk.com.au) is the one-time head of the China desk in the Defence Intelligence Organisation. He is the author of Thunder From the Silent Zone: Rethinking China (2005) and Dictators and Dangerous Ideas (2018).