The virus infecting Xi Jinping's leadership


Last September Chinese President Xi Jinping proclaimed: “There is no force that can shake the foundations of this great nation.” Five months later, a leading Chinese academic, Xu Zhangrun, denounced Xi and “the cabal that surrounds him” for a culture of “systemic impotence” in the face of the rampaging coronavirus, known as COVID-19.

A professor of constitutional law at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, Xu Zhangrun invoked the words of the great Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, calling on “compatriots” to “rage against this injustice, let your lives burn with a flame of decency; break through the stultifying darkness and welcome the dawn”.$zoom_0.159%2C$multiply_0.7214%2C$ratio_1.776846%2C$width_1059%2C$x_0%2C$y_0/t_crop_custom/e_sharpen:25%2Cq_42%2Cf_auto/7344c559d1dfc87d0eb7762f1a2931729040db31
After a noted absence during the COVID-19 crisis, Xi Jinping emerged in public this week to visit a community in Beijing. AP

Xi made his “no force can shake” China’s “foundations” boast on the 70th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party coming to power. They may be operating under different political systems, but around the same time some local media commentary surrounding Australia’s recently re-elected Prime Minister Scott Morrison had a similar flavour, with forecasts of an unstoppable "ScoMo Dynasty".

Communications among the top echelons of the Chinese Communist Party are opaque, but, as Xu Zhangrun’s denunciation following the outbreak shows, Xi’s reputation – if not his position – is no longer impregnable. Morrison is also now under pressure, resulting from a problematic performance during the bushfire crisis, an undeclared civil war among members of the National party, his junior Coalition partner, and divisions inside the Liberal party over climate change.

There’s another connection between the current positions of Xi and Morrison, and it’s not just about COVID-19 or the government’s decision on Thursday to extend the travel ban on Chinese nationals from entering Australia for at least another week. Xu gained his PhD at Melbourne University in the late 90s. Further, his explosive essay denouncing Xi, titled Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear, was translated into English by Geremie Barme, the former director of the Centre of China and the World and professor of Chinese history at ANU.

Xu was suspended for a time from his duties at Tsinghua University after the 2018 publication of a separate essay rebuking Xi over the revoking of term limits on his presidency, and the return of a personality cult, with echoes of China’s first Communist Party boss, Mao Zedong. This earlier essay was also translated by Barme.

The Australian Xi-Xu connection is just one aspect (although an intriguing one) of the local impact of the COVID-19 epidemic, which was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan last December. According to the latest figures, there are so far more than 60,000 cases of coronavirus – most of them in the Chinese province of Hubei, which surrounds Wuhan – and over 1400 fatalities.

While the epidemic is concentrated in Hubei province, COVID-19 sufferers are scattered throughout Asia, Europe, the US and Australia, where 15 cases have so far been identified. The non-medical impact of the epidemic is already huge – threatening the budgets of Australian universities, bringing inbound Chinese tourism to a virtual standstill, and hitting a wide range of Australian exports to China, from wine to vitamins, hard. Many economists are forecasting an Australian economy pulverised by the bushfires and the COVID-19 effect will slip into negative growth in the current quarter.

Xi himself has not been seen much during the crisis and everyone has noticed it and is angry about that too.
— China analyst Dominic Meagher

The government’s travel ban on Chinese citizens who do not have permanent residence in Australia, which was introduced at the beginning of the year, is the most sensitive issue, with its dramatic impact on student numbers and tourism. But it’s a measure strongly supported by local health professionals.

Ramon Shaban, Professor of Infection Prevention and Disease Control at Sydney University and Westmead Hospital, says the current risk of the coronavirus spreading in Australia “is very low”, largely due to “containment measures” such as the travel ban.

“Based on current data, the outbreak is currently contained and our risk here is very low,” he says. “When outbreaks of this nature occur, the risk of genetic (or mutation) occurs, giving rise to different types of effects which can be more or less serious.”

However, “there is no evidence of genetic variation in the coronavirus”.

The danger is there could be a significant “variation”, or even ”mutation”, in the wider political and commercial relationship between Australia and China. Up until the coronavirus hit, nearly 40 per cent of Australian exports headed for China, according to a recent report by the Australia China Relations Institute.

This Australia-to-China export juggernaut covers iron ore, coal, wine, agricultural produce, tourism and Chinese students coming to Australia, helping to make tertiary education our third biggest export industry.

But the mood has soured, according to Dominic Meagher, an economist, consultant, China analyst and chair of the Australasia Strategy Group, which specialises in advising companies in their dealings with other countries. He says Australia “has been accused of turning its back on China. That’s created some public resentment. Whether it lasts (or not) is a question.”

The main challenge is ensuring that people don't over-react and there are no incidents that turn China’s public against Australia.
— Ryan Manuel, chief Asia strategist for Silverhorn Advisors

To “ameliorate” any ill feeling, particularly after the renewal of the travel ban, Australia could offer visa extensions to “anyone already in Australia who would otherwise have to return to travel restricted areas. We’ve declared those places unsafe, so we can hardly force people back there,” Meagher says.

“Australia should send a message of solidarity with the people of Wuhan. Chinese people feel that their sacrifices to contain the virus aren’t acknowledged or appreciated outside China. They feel rejected and isolated by travel restrictions, even though they understand the rationale. A simple message of solidarity with the people would be well received.

“The sails of the Opera House could be used very effectively to deliver such a message. 'Go Wuhan' in simple black and white Chinese and English text should not be out of the question.”

Meagher says the Chinese Communist Party’s “determination to control information is now widely seen as a major factor” in escalating COVID-19 from a local issue to one that has brought parts of China to a nearly complete halt. “There is a huge amount of anger in China about it. Xi himself has not been seen much during the crisis and everyone has noticed it and is angry about that too.

“The sentiment is not unlike the one in Australia when Scott Morrison was AWOL during the bush fires. The consequences may be similar: the government and the leader are still here, but they're politically wounded.”

According to Ryan Manuel, the Hong Kong-based chief Asia strategist for Silverhorn Advisors, the long-term damage resulting from the coronavirus epidemic will be significant, especially on student flow and tourism.

“In the short-term, most Australian universities have already factored in the revenue from Chinese students to their annual budgets, and there will be a heavy shortfall," he says. "Tourism will be hammered in the short term, but in the long term Australia’s value proposition remains the same.

"The main challenge is ensuring that people do not over-react to this virus and that there are no well-publicised incidents that turn China’s public against Australia."

There are also opportunities. According to Manuel, COVID-19 is likely to increase Chinese companies’ interest in investing in Australian resources and agriculture, “particularly given our reputation for being clean and green, our strong regulatory environment and our ability to trace the supply chain from start to finish.

“The question is whether there will be the ability on the Australian side to match with the Chinese market – already a difficult one to break into – when air travel and people-to-people links will be so drastically reduced."

Overall, the COVID-19 effect will be less than “the past few years of constant scrutiny of Chinese academics and universities, especially the impact of Chinese academics being named by researchers as being ‘Party linked’,” Manuel says.

“No matter what happens, the epidemic will affect a small proportion of Chinese academics personally, whereas I don’t know any Chinese-born or China-engaged academic who has not been personally affected by the Chinese influence/interference debate."

A pressing issue for universities is the gaping shortfall in current budgets. Some universities have even considered postponing courses by a full semester because the numbers are so heavily slanted towards students stranded in China because of the Australian travel ban.

At Sydney University, Australia’s oldest tertiary institution, students from China make up about one quarter of the total student population. Currently, all units of study are set to begin on February 24. Exceptions are the Master of Commerce and Master of Professional Accounting degrees, which are heavily patronised by Chinese students. Both have been delayed for two weeks until March 9

Underlining the sensitivity of the issue, a Sydney University spokesperson stressed that “we encourage everyone to continue to be respectful and compassionate”.

Passive politeness is not the mode adopted by Xu in his latest essay. Addressing the Chinese nation, and once again quoting Dylan Thomas, he says: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Scott Morrison may be hoping a similar sentiment is not being pushed in Australia.