8 min read

Brief #19: Ren Zhiqiang, xenophobia, WHO, human rights panel

It’s getting cold in Canberra as we go into mid-Autumn, which means it must be mushroom season soon. Back in the days, we used to forage for Red Pine Mushrooms (Lactarius deliciosus) and Slippery Jacks (Suillus luteus) among Canberra’s pine plantations! While in Leipzig, spring is in the air: the woods and gardens are starting to bloom with vibrant life! Happy Easter, everyone!

-Yun and Adam

1. Ren Zhiqiang: the demise of an insider critic

Ren Zhiqiang 任志强, Chinese property tycoon, outspoken critic, and party member, has been placed under investigation for “serious violations of [party] discipline and law” after penning a blistering essay on the Party’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

Ren’s essay is not only critical of the initial cover-up, but also of the party’s effort to pass off its response as a total success. He also took sharp aim at Xi’s ambition for personal power.

Source: Visual China Group, via Getty Images

Beijing is reining in domestic criticism of the party’s coronavirus response in an effort to ram through its narrative of strong party leadership and national resilience. Many prominent voices that are telling stories inconsistent with the party line are silenced.

Ren, unlike other prominent critics, including Doctors Li Wenliang 李文亮 and Ai Fen 艾芬, Tsinghua Professor Xu Zhangrun 许章润, citizen journalist Chen Qiushi 陈秋实 (now disappeared), and writer Fang Fang 方方 (Wuhan Diary), presents a different challenge to the Party that arguably makes him a bigger sinner.

First, he is a party member and a financial elite. Despite his liberal-leaning, he is among the beneficiary of the Party’s focus on stability, control and growth. Second, like Xu Zhangrun, he took direct aim at Xi for his ambitions, vanity and lack of leadership — of course, a party insider doing this is different from the demonstrations of public intellectuals or dissidents. In fact, public dissent from inside the Party is viewed much more gravely than dissent from outside the halls and networks of power.

Below are some passages from Ren’s essay, translated (and with annotation and links) by the China Digital Times (with added bold by us for emphasis):

[…] No longer is the question about why the situation wasn’t announced in a timely fashion being asked. This is precisely because those who have grasped power want not to shoulder any responsibility, and refuse to allow society to hold them accountable. Just wanting to use “great accomplishments” to cover up their own embarrassment, while at the same time using all sorts of Party media for so-called public education and public opinion guidance; standardizing and updating information release mechanisms; publicizing the Party’s decision-making deployment, charming and moving deeds, leading public opinion with “positive energy,” and other methods to firmly block all traces of truth. Resolutely stop investigating the views that are responsible for this outbreak, while firmly refusing to acknowledge the action of the whistleblower, or the fact that the system and decision-makers are incompetent!

But this type of propaganda to hush a scandal will probably only deceive those who are willing to be deceived, it can’t work on those who believe in truth and facts.

[…] The reality shown by this epidemic is that the Party defends its own interests, the government officials defend their own interests, and the monarch only defends the status and interests of the core. Precisely this type of system is capable of a situation where only the ruler’s order is obeyed with no regard for the people. When the epidemic had already broken out, they wouldn’t dare admit it to the public without the king’s command. They wouldn’t dare announce the facts of the matter, and instead used the method of catching and criticizing “rumors” to restrict the spread of truth, resulting in the disease’s uncontainable spread.

[…] China’s ruling party concealed the cause of the outbreak, then using the power of the entire country, followed up by sealing a city, deceiving the trust of the WHO, and winning international praise. But, it was harder to again deceive the Chinese people caught in the epidemic. Those who live in a democratic country with freedom of speech perhaps don’t know the pain of the lack of a free press and free expression. But Chinese people know that this epidemic and all the unnecessary suffering it brought came directly from a system that strictly prohibits the freedom of press and speech.

No matter how many shortcomings exist in China’s system of administration, if there was freedom of speech, citizens would take active measures to protect themselves. If they knew the truth up front, it would prevent such a massive loss of control and spread. For example, Li Wenliang’s WeChat warning family and friends to take precautions against the spread of the epidemic was considered a “rumor”! If this were not taken to be a rumor, and instead turned into a government announcement to society, then what need would there have been for the January 7 instructions and all that came after? Maybe simply trusting the people with freedom of speech could have already achieved a great victory in preventing and managing this epidemic, and there wouldn’t be such a huge price to pay!

No matter what you go out bragging about the Party leader and his “personal command” [of the outbreak and response, as Xi assured the WHO’s Director-General on January 28], it’s impossible to explain the January 1 CCTV broadcast on the capturing of “rumors,” nor can it alter the whole of society’s investigation into the responsibility behind this outbreak. Maybe not today, but at some point, the responsible parties’ debt to the people must be repaid!

I was unable to cheer for the February 23 speech, because in it I saw a bigger crisis, one that ferments even faster in [the context of] that speech and the cheers it won. When shameless and ignorant people attempt to resign themselves to the stupidity of the great leader, society becomes a mob that is hard to develop and sustain.

Ren highlights a number of flaws in the party’s governance system that we have discussed here previously:

  1. lack of transparency and accountability;
  2. active suppression of freedom of speech;
  3. heavy use of propaganda and censorship to control public discourse;
  4. narcissistic and self-referential nature of party discourse;
  5. centralisation of power under Xi; and
  6. party elites are out-of-touch with the masses (remember “gratitude education”?)

Ren is right that despite the propaganda, what the party’s response to the coronavirus outbreak shows is not effective leadership and the success of China’s political model, but rather key flaws that foreshadow future crisis if left unaddressed.

2. Rising xenophobia

The emphasis on “preventing imported COVID cases” has further stroked xenophobia in China. One particular group being discriminated is black people, including black Africans as well as black people from other countries, such as African-Americans.

Guangzhou has the biggest population of Africans in China. Africans have reportedly been evicted from their homes, refused accommodation at hotels, and refused services at restaurants. This has led to a large number of Africans sleeping on the streets of Guangzhou. Some Africans have also reported that they’ve been asked to get tested, purely due to their race.

Even before COVID, China has a big problem with xenophobia and racism. Even though the Chinese Government recognises “56 ethnic groups”, the Party-state and a big section of the society propagates the idea of ethnonationalism, where Han people owes their duties and loyalties to China — the “root” of all Han people. The most extreme kind sees foreign citizens of Han heritage as “race traitors” and “traitors to China”, and do not believe that anyone outside the “56 ethnic groups” can ever belong in China.

Note that according to the Party-state, Uighurs are also considered part of this one big harmonious, multi-ethnic, happy family (empire?).

The people who subscribe to these racist views often do not see themselves as racists, but merely “upholding traditions”. Some also firmly believe their racist views are “backed by science”. These two arguments mirror the arguments regularly used by far-right members in the West.

It seems that black people bear the brunt of the most vicious kind of racist attacks in China. This has also caused diplomatic troubles. The African Union and Nigeria, for instance, have summoned their respective Chinese ambassadors to protest. The US has also issued an alert advising African-Americans to avoid Guangzhou.

Chinas denies that its policies or actions are racist, claiming that China “treat all foreign nationals equally” and “we have zero tolerance for discrimination”. This is clearly not true. These incidents will put a damper on China’s attempt to take leadership in the “developing world”. If not managed properly, it could jeopardise China’s relationship with some African countries.

Racism is unacceptable anywhere in the world — not in China, not in Australia, not in the US, not anywhere.

3. WHO, US-China, Taiwan

WHO is facing challenges from multiple fronts as the global coronavirus pandemic continue to unfold. The biggest is to its legitimacy. It would be naive to think that international public health cooperation could escape from the clutches of geostrategic competition and politics.

Enough criticism has been heaped on the WHO for sidelining Taiwan due to Beijing’s pressure. Much can be said about WHO’s conduct, but it’s worthwhile to point out that the WHO is under obligations and constraints that are set by the interaction of its member states.

The challenges that WHO is facing also highlights a two-sided story. On the one side, there is China’s increasing influence in international organisations. Many of us expected this. Some even argued that China should assume more responsibility in global governance. But now that this time has arrived, some are worried. As we noted in February:

Anxiety over China’s influence over international bodies will only rise as China continues to strive for a bigger role in these bodies. China’s pursuit of its interests via these bodies should not surprise anyone. More often than not, its interests are stable and its actions predictable with respect to these bodies.

On the other side, the Trump administration lacks a deep commitment to multilateralism and international organisations. In this case, Trump even went as far as to label the WHO “very China Centric” and threatened to pull US funding (a threat that he has now walked back from).

On US foreign policy and leadership, we noted previously that:

The triumphalism in the superiority of the West is hard to sustain at a time of declining American leadership, and increasing anxiety among allies and partners over US commitments as well as US character.

The US needs to face the hard truth that its allies and partners around the world are increasingly disillusioned and nervous regarding US leadership, especially in light of a changing geopolitical landscape with the rise of China.

The politics playing out with respect to the WHO is, in many ways, a microcosm of the challenges facing global governance stemming from China’s rise, eroding US leadership, and the increasing demands of geopolitics in a brave new world.

4. Human rights panel

A Chinese diplomat was appointed to the UN Human Rights Council Consultative Group. This means China will be one of the five members of the Group to evaluate and recommend human rights investigators for the United Nations. Organisations such as UN Watch and Reporters Without Borders have condemned this move. China violates human rights on a regular basis.

China is proactively building its structural power, which includes the power to set standards, make rules, and create norms. Where there are existing institutions such as the Human Rights Council, China could either join the institutions and attempt to change it from the inside, or create new institutions.

In this case, China has joined an existing institution. It will attempt to influence decisions to ones more favourable to China (just like the WHO). China’s effort is likely helped by the US withdrawal from the Human Rights Council.

The likely result of this appointment is less scrutiny of human rights issues that touches China’s interests.

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