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Brief #8: coronavirus, freedom of speech overseas, Interpol sentencing

Hi all, happy Spring Festival/Lunar New Year (and Australia Day and Republic Day in India)! We hope you are spending time with loved ones this weekend despite war, disease, fire, ancient grudges, new mutiny etc.

A quick reminder: Please join us for evening drinks/food, in Sydney on Feb 14 (bring your valentine), or in Canberra on Feb 20 (if the city hasn’t been wiped out by then). RSPV not required, but it would be nice so we have a rough idea of the numbers.

- Yun and Adam

This week we look at the implications of the Wuhan Coronavirus (which we have written about 4 weeks in a row, unfortunately), party-state censorship efforts overseas; and the sentencing of ex-Interpol President.

1. Wuhan Coronavirus: implications

Over the last 6 weeks, Wuhan Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) has turned into the biggest news so far in 2020 with major ramifications in China and beyond. As of Jan 26, there have been over 2000 confirmed cases in China resulting in 56 deaths, and confirmed cases in over a dozen countries, including Thailand, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, France, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States.

In China, over 30 provinces and municipal cities (with a combined population of over 1 billion people) have declared the outbreak a major (Level 1, the most serious) public health incident. The Politburo with Xi Jinping at the helm has turned their full attention to the unfolding crisis. The Jan 25 Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) meeting established the Epidemic Response Work Leading Small Group 应对疫情工作领导小组. It also made clear that preventing the spreading of Wuhan Coronavirus has become the part’s top priority at present:


Party committees and governments at all levels must, according to the decisions and planning of the [CCP] Central Committee, fully mobilise, fully deploy, and fully strengthen [their related] work. They must give top priority to the safety and health of the people, and take epidemic prevention and control as the most important task at present.

Beyond the obvious human suffering and destruction, the Chinese authorities’ response to Wuhan Coronavirus highlights important aspects of its political system. To help us think ahead, below are some preliminary political, economic and international implications of this crisis:

  1. Party’s prestige and legitimacy are both on the line in the handling of the crisis. Having realised just how serious this is, and how potentially destabilising it is for the party, the party is now scrambling to fully mobilise resources to tackle the crisis. Ultimately, The Chinese people are likely to judge the Party harshly despite the party’s efforts at narrative control.
  2. The efficacy of the party’s narrative on the effectiveness of the Chinese party-state system is being questioned by the reality of the unfolding crisis. Previously, we noted that in its “scramble for ideological coherence, moral legitimacy, and self-renewal,” the party is trying to “square an ideological circle and fill the moral vacuum left by the collapse of Communism with material and ethnonationalist aspirations.” Crises such as the current one are the best test of whether the party-state can make it work, and how much confidence the Chinese people have in the current political system.
  3. Xi’s prestige is likely to take a hit, putting pressure towards collective leadership instead of the paramount leader model. Centralisation of power under Xi means that inevitably Xi will take the blame if things go wrong, as would he be showered with glory when things go right. This is high risk, high reward for him. This case (along with HK, Taiwan and the Trade War) should have made it abundantly clear. In official reports of Jan 25 PSC meeting, we are already seeing signs of the narrative framing that put more emphasis on collective leadership. This bears watching.
  4. Trust in authorities is very low, and this crisis will exacerbate this. Distrust was a key theme of last week’s Neican Brief. Essentially, people just don’t trust what their government is telling them, whether its official statistics, political ideology etc. Given censorship, information control and the absence of trustworthy information, rumours and disinformation are likely to persist, and present significant challenges.
  5. The current crisis has significant ramifications for the industry, supply chains, and transport networks. We don’t have a clear picture yet, but we should start to think through the downstream ramifications.
  6. China’s GDP will take a hit, maybe around 1 per cent. China is already hard-pressed to achieve its 6 per cent GDP growth target. 2020 is also the year that China aims to achieve a “moderately prosperous society”. The current crisis is a severe challenge to China’s 2020 economic agenda, which aims to maintain stability in an already volatile environment loaded with risks.

All in all, the Wuhan Coronavirus outbreak presents a big challenge to China’s political system and the rule of the CCP. The party will resort to massive mobilisation and pushing ethnonationalism sentiments.

2. Censorship of Chinese citizen overseas

A 20-year-old Chinese student studying in a US university has gone to jail in China for a tweet he posted while still in the US.

The Chinese party-state uses a variety of tactics to discourage PRC nationals or people with connections to China, such as Chinese diasporas, from speaking out against the party-state, even while outside of the PRC.

For example, if someone has close family members in China, Chinese authorities may pay them a visit (essentially threaten them) when that person decides to speak out publicly against the party-state, including attending a protest. The words and actions of students in the classroom can be monitored by other students, who may then inform the Chinese Consulates. This tactic can make some people fearful of expressing their views publicly or even privately.

Other censorship tactics imposed on people outside China include the monitoring and censorship of messages on the social media app WeChat, even between accounts registered outside the PRC. Prominent critics of the PRC, such as Anne-Marie Brady and John Garnaut have also reported being harassed in Australia and New Zealand.

Now we have evidence of legal consequences in the PRC for those who speak out against the PRC while outside the country. Some questions and implication remain:

  • Whether this would also apply to foreign nationals, especially those with Chinese heritage, who criticise the party-state and later visit the PRC?
  • What does it mean for Chinese citizens currently overseas who have criticised the PRC? Will they have a strong claim for international protection?

3. The sentencing of ex-Interpol President

The first PRC national appointed to the role of President of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, was dramatically detained in 2018 when he went back to China. At the time of his detention, he was still formally the head of the agency. He was later expelled from the CCP and stripped of his positions. He pleaded guilty last year and this week was sentenced to 13.5 years for corruption.

This episode reminds the international community that even the head of an international organisation is not immune to Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. It raises questions of whether Chinese heads of international organisations can be free from political pressures from the CCP and serve the interests of the organisation rather than the interests of CCP.

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