It’s getting worse for Xi Jinping

Clamour for his ouster grows in China over handling of corona outbreak

It’s getting worse for Xi Jinping

Speaking up: Risking certain punishment, university professors and others in China are raising their voice against President Xi Jinping.

Jayadeva Ranade

Jayadeva Ranade
President, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy

Expressions of popular discontent, rare in China because of the risk of punishment, are increasing and mounting pressure on Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Widespread anger among Chinese citizens at the lack of transparency and withholding of information about the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic fanned the latent discontent, which, provoked by the abolition of term-limits on appointments to China’s apex posts, has been simmering since the 19th Party Congress in October 2017. The death of Wuhan hospital doctor Li Wenliang spiked this discontent. A number of reputed citizens, including party cadres, or at the least party members, and at least one former member of the CCP’s 350-odd member powerful Central Committee (CC), have been blunt in their criticism of Xi Jinping and his policies.

Criticism has been aimed at the progressively increasing security controls, party surveillance and centralisation of authority. The steady hardening of China’s security establishment is reflected in annual enhancements of the national security budget from 2013 — coinciding with Xi Jinping taking over as CCP CC general secretary, chairman of Central Military Commission (CMC) and the President. This is accompanied by expanding surveillance and introduction of security technologies like closed-circuit cameras, facial recognition and AI. The unexplained absence of Xi Jinping — whose activities otherwise feature daily on the front pages of Chinese newspapers and as lead news items on state-owned TV — from January 29 till February 10, has also attracted adverse notice.

On March 2 and February 23, Zhao Shilin, a retired professor of Minzu University and former member of the CCP CC, posted two letters to Xi Jinping, both scathing in their criticism. In his letter of February 23, Zhao Shilin said China had ‘missed the golden window of time’ around the Chinese New Year, resulting in the ‘epidemic spreading with great ferocity’. He described its cost as ‘enormous’ and ‘unspeakably painful’. Recalling Xi Jinping’s remark that the battle against coronavirus ‘is a grand test of the capacity of our nation’s system of governance’, Zhao Shilin bluntly declared, ‘Regrettably, I must say, you’re scoring zero so far!’ He identified five factors as responsible with stringent security, ensuring the party’s image and preeminence, and the centralisation of authority topping the list. These inhibited cadres and officials from doing their job and displaying initiative. Stating that ‘people from within and without the system are calling for systemic political reform’, he said these must include implementing the ‘socialist core values of freedom, democracy, equality, and rule of law’ and guaranteeing political rights of citizens, like freedom of speech. In the second letter, he reiterated, ‘There should be more than one voice in a healthy society to demand free speech’.

Many others posted similarly critical articles, risking certain punishment. Xu Zhiyong, a former lecturer at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, urged Xi Jinping to step down for his ‘inability to handle major crises’. He called Xi Jinping’s political ideology ‘confusing’, his governance model ‘outdated’ and said he had ruined China with ‘exhaustive social stability maintenance measures’. He said in conclusion, ‘I don’t think you are a villain, just someone who is not very smart. For the public’s sake, I’m asking you again: Step down, Mr Xi Jinping.’ Tsinghua University professor, Xu Zhangrun’s essay captioned, ‘Angry People No Longer Fear’, went viral on China’s social media. It accused leaders, specifically Xi Jinping, of being out of touch with the peoples’ needs and perpetuating an elite ‘small circle of leaders’ and engaging in ‘big data terrorism’. He charged they have ‘stifled public discussion and social communication and early warning mechanisms that existed originally’ and blamed this for the failure of the authorities in Hubei. The article called Xi Jinping a ‘political tyrant’ and declared ‘the sun will eventually come to this land of freedom!’

Resentment among the populace of Wuhan city, capital of Hubei province and epicentre of the outbreak, was evident in their protests when the epidemic was raging. During Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan’s inspection of Wuhan on February 14, they protested ‘the communist government’s suppression of freedom of speech and its hiding of information’. Residents shouted, ‘Don’t believe them’, ‘they are telling lies’, etc.

China’s leadership has taken note of this unceasing criticism. In a bid to assuage anger, the National Supervisory Commission (chaired by Xi Jinping), which was investigating handling of the case of Dr Li Wenliang — the whistleblower who was punished by the local authorities and later died — reported on March 19 that the police and Wuhan Public Security Bureau had revoked the reprimand, apologised to the doctor’s family and disciplined two police officers.

Indication of the extent of discontent surfaced last week, with reports of children of high-level veteran party cadres, also called ‘princelings’, calling for an urgent meeting to discuss Xi Jinping’s replacement. The Hong Kong-headquartered Sun TV, which focuses on China’s elite and the diaspora, said the ‘princelings’ had proposed an ‘emergency leadership group’ led by either Vice-President Wang Qishan or Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Yang. The appearance of such reports are normally indicative of serious inner-party conflict.

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