The People’s Republic of China is at crossroads now. Corona crisis is snowballing in the lines of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 and the Tiananmen Protests in 1899. It is rocking the edifices of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Protests are brewing all across the country. Even the top brass at mighty People’s Liberation Army is upset.
The credibility of the leaders, including Comrade Xi Jinping, are under stake after the officials at Wuhan forced to revise the death toll on Friday. A 50 per cent margin of error is difficult to swallow. That prompted President Donald Trump of the USA, French President Emmanuel Macron and the UK acting prime minister Dominic Rabb to challenge the Chinese way of handling the epidemic.
Just before the Chinese New year, things were seemed to be favourable for President Xi to remain in power. Literally forever. The Parliament has passed a resolution to allow Mr Xi to carry on even after his two-term in 2023. The vote was widely regarded as a rubber-stamping exercise. Two delegates voted against the change and three abstained, out of 2,964 votes. China had imposed a two-term limit on its president since the 1990s. Things have changed now. Corona will derail Mr Xi’s plans to elevate his status to the level of Chairman Mao.
Mr Xi’s grip on power is loosening now. He is under fire over his handling of the crisis. The protest in Wuhan on Wednesday comes after earlier violent clashes on the border of surrounding Hubei province and neighbouring Jiangxi province in late March.
Residents at Hubei province appeared to clash with police as they were blocked from crossing a bridge to neighbouring Jiangxi. Video clips widely circulated online showed rare protests apparently sparked over fears that travellers could spread the infectious disease. China lifted tough restrictions on this week that prevented people from leaving Hubei – where the outbreak began in December. But outside of Hubei, there is some doubt over claims that the outbreak has been controlled. On Friday night videos claimed to show police from Jiangxi province – wearing face masks and bearing riot shields – blocking the bridge to prevent people from crossing.
Even the People’s Liberation Army is not happy with the way things are developing in the country. Corona has rained many of their privileges and people on distress are no more counting them as saviours. They are now just part of the huge party machinery.
People are blaming the Chinese Community Party (CCP) for making the situation worse. They are accusing the party leadership for the outbreak. The Hubei provincial and Wuhan municipal party secretaries were replaced by President Xi. Ying Yong, the Mayor of Shanghai replaced Jiang Chaoliang as Hubei’s party secretary, while Wang Zhonglin from Jinan province took Ma Guoqiang’s seat as Wuhan party secretary. Almost simultaneously the party-appointed Chen Yixin as the new deputy chief of the Central Guiding Group on the Virus.
Silence is not elegance
Silence is not elegance, especially during the time of an outbreak. For much of January 2020, President Xi Jinping chose to remain undercover and away from the limelight of the TV screens and Chinese media. It was only on February 10, 2020 that President Xi finally resurfaced via a video conference (from Beijing) and talked to workers of three hospitals in Wuhan, wearing a mask.
He said: “Wuhan is a heroic city, and people of Hubei and Wuhan are heroic people who have never been crushed by any difficulty and danger in history.”
President Xi was then named as “commander of the People’s War against the epidemic”.
This newly appointed ‘commander’ is also facing unhappiness from within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Evidence of this appeared on February 10, 2020 when the Central Military Commission (CMC) issued stricter regulations governing the relationship between the PLA and the civil regional governments. This step was directly linked with the PLA’s role in the fight against the virus and indicated that corruption was occurring in the PLA as it was deployed to assist in anti Covid-19 operations.
The Political Work Department, the Logistics Support Department and the Discipline Inspection Commission jointly issued a “notice” which listed 13 “strictly forbidden” items, for example, “[barring] PLA units to accept visits and donations from local civil units, enterprises, and individuals, in the form of money, marketable securities, and other payment vouchers”. Commentaries on Chinese social media noted that the CMC did this to prevent military units and local governments from colluding and engaging in corrupt practices!
PLA in Corona Mission
China has also utilised the services of the PLA to counter the spread of Covid-19. Nearly 4,000 PLA medical personnel have been airlifted to Wuhan. PLA Joint Logistic Support Force units are providing logistic support by provisioning medical stores & equipment/transport. The temporary shutdown of major defence industrial units will adversely affect the PLA modernisation plans.
China has attempted to suppress news about the outbreak of Covid-19 right from the beginning and any news that is perceived as anti-China is quickly clamped down. Recall that Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the first doctors who sounded the alarm in December 2019, was, in the first place, severely reprimanded by local authorities. When he passed away, the Wuhan Central Hospital denied his death, triggering a deeper anger among the Chinese public.
Following his death, a letter signed by hundreds of intellectuals asserted that Dr. Wenliang was a victim of speech suppression. The letter stated that, “For thirty years the Chinese have been made to surrender their freedom in exchange for safety, and now they fall prey to a public health crisis and are less safe than ever. A humanitarian disaster is upon us.”
The signatories to the letter did not stop at that. They also raised five demands. They wanted February 6, 2020, the day Dr. Li died, to be declared “National Freedom of Speech Day”. The next one was more significant and wanted the National People’s Congress to implement the right to freedom of speech guaranteed by Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution.
The demand that the Chinese State immediately cease censoring social media and deleting or blocking accounts was a significant demand, given the existing blanket ban on all forms of social media relating to Covid-19. The intellectuals also asked that the State treat all citizens across the country equally and receive timely, proper, and effective medical care and finally “beginning from today, [the State should] implement the [Chinese] Constitution”!
This letter is just one of the various responses that have appeared in response to the Chinese State’s inaction on the Covid-19. Xu Zhangrun, a law professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, who is under suspension, blamed Chinese Communist Party leaders for putting politics ahead of the people. In a strongly worded article published on overseas Chinese-language website he writes: “The political system has collapsed under the tyranny and a governance system [made up] of bureaucrats, which has taken [the party] more than 30 years to build, has floundered”.
“The level of popular fury is volcanic and a people thus enraged may, in the end, also cast aside their fear,” he added.
All this raises a question mark on the future of President Xi Jinping as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and also a military leader. The longer the Covid-19 remains alive, the greater chance of President Xi becoming weaker and ineffective. This in turn will lead for calls from within the party for a change in leadership. What will eventually happen can only be speculated, however, this is one of the paths that could definitely occur.