Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Xi's China

Peter Brookes cartoon in The  Times is a damning incitement of China's handling of the coronavirus epidemic.

Because President Xi is ultimately responsible for silencing the Chinese whistleblower, Li Wenliang, in the same way as Donald Trump is trying to silence critics of his administration in America.

Read the full story in the link below to the Guardian and an excellent article by Richard McGregor.



The coronavirus outbreak has exposed the deep flaws of Xi’s autocracy

China’s political system was meant to be all-powerful, capable of dealing with any crisis. The death of one doctor has shaken that claim

By Richard McGregor - The Observer

Soon after Li Wenliang succumbed to the coronavirus in Wuhan early on Friday morning, a drawing of the Chinese doctor appeared on the internet, sleeping and being hoisted gently into heaven by an angel.

From late in the evening until dawn yesterday, Chinese citizens stayed up, posting emotional tributes and venting their fury at the government over the treatment of the 34-year-old ophthalmologist, who had tried to warn the authorities about the virus in late December, only to be told by the police to shut up.

The authorities, seemingly in a panic at the outpouring of grief and anger, announced that Li was still being treated before reposting confirmation of his death hours later. “You think we’ve all gone to sleep?” posted one netizen? “No. We haven’t.”

In an interview with Chinese magazine Caixin before his death, Li delivered his own verdict on the government’s handling of the issue: “I think there should be more than one voice in a healthy society.”

It is wise to be cautious about the political impact of a single event or, in this case, one person’s death, especially in China, which is ruled by an opaque Communist party. After all, can a virus that has so far claimed more than 700 lives, fewer than in a normal flu season in many countries, really hold the future of China in its thrall? 

The Chinese ophthalmologist Li Wenliang died from the coronavirus on 7 February. His early warnings about the outbreak were suppressed by the police. Photograph: Li Wenliang/Social Media/AFP via Getty Images

However, the fallout from the spread of the potentially deadly coronavirus is already grim, most immediately in the form of a reeling Chinese economy that is having to temporarily sever supply lines to factories and retail outlets around the world. China has been responsible for about one-third of global growth in recent years, a greater share than the US, and any slowdown in its economy will be felt across the world.

But the greatest focus is on what Li alluded to when he complained about the country being ruled by “one voice”, which Chinese people would immediately recognise as a barb directed at Xi Jinping. Xi has swept all enemies, real and imagined, aside since taking over as Communist party chief in late 2012 and made many more along the way.

Powerful families and moneyed interests toppled by his relentless anti-corruption campaign will never forgive him and are lying in wait for revenge. Equally, many of the technocratic elite have been alienated by his illiberal economic policies and his assertiveness overseas, which they blame for triggering a concerted pushback in Washington.

Much of their anger was captured in a single moment that embodied their fears that Xi is taking the country backwards – his decision in early 2018 to do away with term limits and make himself leader in perpetuity.

Li was neither a dissident nor seeking to overthrow the communist party. But he was risking jail to discuss the virus

Difficult as it is to measure public opinion in China, it is doubtless true that for many Chinese, the anti-corruption campaign – Xi’s key initiative – has been highly popular. With the economy growing steadily before the virus hit, most Chinese are also still seeing their living standards rise.

But Li’s death and the mismanagement of the crisis have done more than just crystallise the elite’s dislike of Xi. Over time, they could direct the anger of the wider populace against him as well.

“In previous crises, like the Wenchuan earthquake [in Sichuan in 2008], the vast majority of Chinese citizens were spectators commenting on an event that angered them but was far away,” said Bill Bishop, of Sinocism, a Washington-based China newsletter. “In this epidemic, no one is just a spectator – everyone is directly impacted.”

The spread of the virus, most likely starting from live animals in the Wuhan wet market late last year, has showcased both the party state’s formidable strengths and corrosive weaknesses.

The initial coverage of the virus focused on the authorities’ abrupt order, issued at 2am on January 23, to quarantine Wuhan, a city of 11 million in central Hubei province.

“To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million is new to science,” said Gauden Galea, a World Health Organization official, who seemed both in awe at the order and wryly unsure whether it would work.

Once areas surrounding Wuhan were pulled inside the sealed-off zone days later, a total of 35 million people had been effectively put into lockdown with the stroke of an administrative pen.

The power of the Chinese state and its ability to mobilise resources overnight has long been admired by foreigners, be it in building a hospital in barely a week, as in Wuhan, or enforcing a cordon sanitaire containing tens of millions of people. But it is the chronic weaknesses in the political system that exacerbated the spread of the virus in the first place.

The authoritarian strictures of the Chinese party state place a premium on the control of information in the name of maintaining stability. In such a system, lower-level officials have no incentive to report bad news up the line. Under Xi, such restrictions have grown tighter.

In Wuhan, Li and seven of his fellow doctors had been talking among themselves in an internet chat group about a new cluster of viral infections. They stopped after being warned by police. By the time the authorities reacted and quarantined the city, it was too late.

Li was neither a dissident nor a pro-democracy activist seeking to overthrow the Communist party. But he was risking jail to even discuss the virus. For in Xi’s China, the professional classes – doctors, lawyers, journalists and the like – all must subsume their skills and ethics to the political directives of the moment.

During the crisis, Xi has maintained an unusually low profile, perhaps because he doesn’t want to step in publicly until it is clear the health authorities have gained control of the situation and new infections start to fall.

For a man whose propaganda apparatus has recently begun to promote him as the “people’s leader”, it has been a humbling moment.

Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. His most recent book is Xi Jinping: The Backlash

Democracy Rules (9 January 2013)

Here's an interesting artcle which appeared in The Times newspaper recently - written by Ai Weiwei - a well-known artist and campaigner for freedom of speech in China.

Now democracy is an unusual beast in China which can best be summed up as follows:

China has a population of 1.3 billion people - but democracy is reserved to members of the Chinese Communist Party which claims an impressive 80 million members.

Now these 80 million members represent just over 6% of the population - so the vast majority of its people (94%) are completely disenfranchised - unless they all join the Communist Party, of course.

But think of the number of trees that would have to be cut down - just to issue all those new membership cards. 

Every ten years the 80 million members of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) send 2,000 delegates to the CCP Party Congress - which is only held once a decade - and elects the party leadership for the next 10 years.

The Party Congress also elects a central committee comprising 25 or so leading party figures - which in turn elects a small kitchen cabinet of the most trusted and powerful  politicians.

Yet almost all of this furious activity - which claims to be representative democracy - takes place behind closed doors and without any public debate or effective scrutiny.

So, I'm with Ai Weiwei - the next stage of China's growth and development - requires a different mindset from the one that has dragged much of the country out of terrible poverty.

Because representative democracy is not such a big deal - when it's both unrepresentative and non-participative - as far as the vast bulk of the Chinese people are concerned.

No wonder that some brave people in China - including journalists at the Southern Weekly newspaper in Guangdong - are beginning to take a stand by demanding more freedom of speech and that their country begins to face up to the need for change. 

China’s growth cannot last without freedom

by Ai Weiwei 

The suppression of individual rights and civil voices is incompatible with modern times

In China those in power are more afraid of the people they wield power over than ever before. The powerful try to avoid any confrontation, or even discussion, at all costs. This was apparent during the 18th Communist Party of China National Congress. To avoid flyers being distributed in public, taxi drivers were ordered to remove crank handles from car doors so that the windows would stay shut, and bus windows were sealed with screws. The irony is that by smothering individual rights and silencing opinion, China suffers. Its young people have no passion, imagination, or creativity. They show no ability to digest different perspectives or to even recognise that there are differences in viewpoint.

The new Politburo Standing Committee is a product of the system. The personalities and their faces are unfamiliar, their backgrounds barely known to the public. How can we talk about signs of change when we have no clues to understanding the thinking of China’s most senior government leaders? These leaders are detached from reality, and do not recognise what they should be doing or what the nation needs. Their promises are mere slogans.

The Communist Party possesses full control of the media, and the press is only a tool for propaganda and censorship. No meaningful discussions can take place over Chinese social media other than those about entertainment and gossip. During the recent congress, all discussions on the microblogging website Weibo were heavily monitored. Rigorous approval processes were introduced for posting comments, making it a time-consuming act.

On the Chinese internet any mention of my name, even negative criticism, was censored to avoid any public attention. Any image or comment made about me would be deleted immediately and anyone who posted them would risk having their internet accounts shut down. Access to blocked foreign websites was possible using technology such as virtual private networks (VPNs), but even these were severely attacked during the congress. Under such pressure, people turned away because of the potential risks of using the internet, as any show of personal opinion could easily lead to prison or enforced disappearance. They get scared and the discussions stop.

Even though China’s economic growth is bringing rapid changes to its society, it has not become any easier for individuals to participate in social matters. It is still forbidden to express social opinion, to start a non-governmental organisation or just to be a volunteer for social causes. There is no room for expressing different views, or introducing initiatives that run parallel to the Government’s policies or compensate for areas where the Government fails. Any attempt to participate in public affairs is considered a challenge to the Government’s legitimacy.

Over the past six decades or so, those who tried to exercise their rights commonly dealt with police harassment, enforced disappearances and incarcerations. These caused extreme hardships in the daily lives of those who dared to speak, as well as severe physical and mental damage. China has become a place where civil voices are silenced. Intellectuals, or any individual for that matter, cannot reflect on their feelings or ideas.

China’s growth has not benefited its citizens. On the contrary, its existing growth hinders the country’s ability to change. It is impossible to make any significant adjustments without changing the Government’s structure completely. Yet the Government lacks the creativity and independence to foster a stronger society. It is afraid that any change would interfere with growth, leading to social upheaval and disorder. This has become an excuse to crack down on private individual rights.

This approach renders the system incompatible with modern times. Our times are very different from the Cold War period. All nations are facing economic challenges and global competition. China cannot win without the free flow of information and civil participation. It will never become a modern society without taking up this challenge.

We are now living in difficult times and at a critical moment. Although there are no indications of improvement, we can only hope that the conditions will not continue to deteriorate. I am, however, always optimistic about the future. For the younger generation to meet the challenges in their lives, they have to be free individuals, able to take on the burden of responsibility, and involve themselves passionately in social matters.


Ai Weiwei, aged 57, is an artist and outspoken critic of the Chinese Government and its suppression of free speech. He is best known in Britain for his installation Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern in 2010. Last year he was detained by the Chinese authorities for 81 days that he called a living hell of interrogation and isolation. On release, he was told that he owed £1.5 million in taxes and fines