The following excerpt is taken from Professor Xu Zhangrun’s analysis of China’s coronavirus predicament titled:
‘China, a Lone Ship of State on the Vast Ocean of Global Civilisation —
the coronavirus pandemic and the political and civilisational prospects for the world system’
The full version of Xu Zhangrun’s essay appeared on Mainland China, in Hong Kong and here, in China Heritage, on the morning of Thursday 21 May 2020, the day before the long-delayed third session of the Thirteenth National People’s Congress (NPC) and the third session of the Thirteenth National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) were to be convened in Beijing. Those meetings had been rescheduled from March 2020 due to the coronavirus crisis.
Xu Zhangrun composed this work in his Beijing ‘Erewhon Studio’ 無齋. The name 無齋 wú zhāi literally means ‘The Studio That Isn’t’. ‘Erewhon’ is a reference to the title of a novel by Samuel Butler published in 1872. A satire of Victorian social mores, the book was about ‘nowhere in particular’; ‘erewhon’ being a reverse working of ‘nowhere. Butler’s fictional ruminations are thought to have been inspired in part by his time in New Zealand. The name ‘Erewhon Studio’ thus links Xu Zhangrun’s prose, with its satirical undertow and utopian aspiration, and New Zealand, a distant island nation where China Heritage is produced. Of course, Xu Zhangrun’s essays, produced ‘no-where’, are really about ‘now-here’.
Professor Xu ends the full version of his thesis with the words:
This essay was composed in a mood that alternated between mortal outrage, all-consuming anxiety and profound sorrow during the late-spring and early-summer days of the 2020 Gengzi Year of the Rat
The material offered here in translation is excerpted, annotated on the basis of Professor Xu’s ‘Lone Ship of State’ with the permission of the author. It is the latest chapter in ‘Viral Alarm’, the theme of China Heritage Annual 2020. For a table of contents and links to other chapters in the Annual, see here, and for the ‘Xu Zhangrun Archive’, see here.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
21 May 2020
For excerpts from the full essay, rendered both in a voice-over and with Chinese subtitles, see:
At a crucial juncture like this, faced with urgency and impending doom, by their very nature the bookish person will have something to say and have no alternative but to speak out. A single life is as nothing; it will fall away into insignificance. Yet with the faint light of dawn promise is renewed each day. What may seem lost thus lives on forever.
Twelve Things You Should Do —
Advice to China’s National People’s Congress
translated and annotated by Geremie R. Barmé
In early February I published an analysis of the systemic crisis of governance in China that led to the coronavirus pandemic:
‘As the Year of the Pig  gave way to the Year of the Rat [February 2020], a virus originating in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province—a city famed as the nation’s major transportation and communication hub—was spreading throughout China. Overnight, the country found itself in the grip of a devastating crisis and fear stalked the land. The authorities proved themselves to be at a loss how to respond effectively and the high cost of their impotence was soon visited upon the common people. Before long, the coronavirus was reaching around the globe and the People’s Republic found itself rapidly isolated from the rest of the world.
‘The cause of all of this lies, ultimately, with The Axlerod [that is, Xi Jinping] and the cabal that surrounds him. It began with the imposition of stern bans on the reporting of accurate information about the virus which but served to embolden deception at every level of government, although it only struck its true stride when bureaucrats throughout the system consciously shrugged off responsibility for the unfolding crisis while continuing to seek the approbation of their superiors. They stood by blithely as the crucial window of opportunity that was available to deal with the outbreak snapped shut in their faces.’
— ‘Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear’
ChinaFile, 10 February 2020
After a period of enforced silence I am taking advantage of your gathering in Beijing to make myself heard once more. It is widely recognised that by all rights modern government must be founded on institutions that are responsible for the decisions made on behalf of the people. When decisions lead to policy failure, not only should the course be corrected, those responsible must acknowledge their mistakes, appeal in all humility for public forgiveness and be held accountable. Without this as a bottom line, we will all be confronted by the worst possible kind of rulership, one under which people are forced to live as if in a foreign land. Even more ominous is that by denying culpability those in power are leaving the way open for future disasters. This is why I feel that I must speak out again and I urge you to concider twelve policy initiatives that may ameliorate the present situation:
- Reveal the truth about the coronavirus. Undertake an honest investigation into the origins of the coronavirus and the reasons for its rapid spread throughout China. It is crucially important for the authorities to ascertain and make public reliable statistics about the numbers of those affected by the virus. The people demand no less. A ‘State Council White Paper’ would be an appropriate form in which to announce such findings. Among other things such a document should include a timeline that details the actions taken both by the central and the local governments during the initial stages of the outbreak. Of particular importance is a detailed account of the decisions made during the crucial days from the 3rd to the 7th of January. [Note: On 3 January the Wuhan Health Commission said it had identified 44 cases and that: ‘Preliminary investigation indicates that there has been no evidence of clear human to human transmission, and no cases of infection of medical workers’. The official chronology of the epidemic issued by the Xinhua News Agency claims that from 3 January China began to inform the WHO and various countries regularly about the outbreak, as well as offering updates to Washington. On the same day, the Chinese media outlet Caixin reports, the Chinese Health Commission issued a notice about biological samples and hazard reduction, as well as ordering the destruction of samples held by unregistered bodies. The Commission also warned against any organisation or group publishing any information or research about the outbreak without express official approval. Caixin reports that this notice led to the temporary shutting down of research and the destruction of samples, etcetera etcetera. Then, over the following days, there were reports of human-to-human transmission. As for 7 January: Xi Jinping chaired a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Politburo. In February, he retrospectively claims that he issued instructions at that meeting regarding the coronavirus outbreak. In reality, no official reports issued by Xinhua at the time mentioned Xi’s role vis-à-vis the virus — although the official Chinese media is punctilious in detailing every speech, statement and directive made by Chairman of Everything Xi. The cone of silence remained in place until 20 January. It should also be noted that the official announcement of the 7 January Politburo meeting made no mention of the outbreak.] What were the details of the deliberations at the time, what decisions were made, how were they transmitted and to whom? An explanation must be given as to why, according to the Xinhua chronology, the US government was informed about the virus, yet it was concealed from the Chinese public. Moreover, why was there an official coverup of the situation at the time? This negligence left the people of China entirely unaware, unguarded and unprepared for the unfolding crisis, one that led to immense suffering and a tragic loss of life.
- The people involved in all of this must be held to account, no matter who they are or where they are located in the political hierarchy. The government must issue a formal apology to the people of China and there must be a meaningful act of contrition. Those responsible must also face legal sanctions according to the law.
- Citizen journalists who attempted to report on the situation [such as Chen Qiushi and Fang Binbin] in Wuhan should be released, as should Rights Lawyers, the leaders of faith communities, and dissidents, as well as all of the innocent Chinese citizens who have been wrongly punished. Moreover, there should be an end to the persecution of university professors who dare to speak out [Note: In February, for example, ten Wuhan university professors spoke out.]
- In Wuhan a ‘Wailing Wall of the 2020 Gengzi Year’ should be built on an appropriate site. The names, gender and dates of all of the people who died as a result of this national disaster should be inscribed thereon. Such a site will allow for public grieving and stand as a warning for future generations. [Note: A ‘gengzi year’ 庚子年 occurs every thirty-seventh year in the traditional sixty-year lunar calendrical cycle. In modern times, and in the popular imagination, ‘gengzi years’ are associated with disaster and hardship: the gengzi year of 1840 coincided with the First Opium War with Britain; 1900 was the year of the Boxer Rebellion; and, 1960 marked a particularly harrowing period during the Great Famine that followed the Great Leap Forward.]
- A sculpture depicting ‘The Righteous’ should be installed at a suitable location in Wuhan. Such a public work would commemorate the nine men and women who warned others and acted as whistle-blowers during the initial stages of the coronavirus outbreak. [Note: The initial group of eight whistle-blowers are known as ‘the eight righteous people’ 八君子, and they were all cautioned by the police and accused of rumour-mongering by the official media. When the earlier role of Dr Ai Fen was revealed, she was added to their number and is now recognised as the person who ‘gave the whistle to the whistle blowers’.] Their bravery should be acknowledged in perpetuity, and their public-spiritedness celebrated.
- The government should establish a dedicated fund to support those children who have been orphaned by the coronavirus, as well as the families of medical personnel who died in the line of duty. Let me emphasise that no money from such a fund should be given to any members of the Internet police who died from exhaustion as part of their tireless invigilation in preventing the public from sharing information about the real nature and extent of the crisis.
- Free speech should be extolled and celebrated in the form of an officially gazetted ‘Li Wenliang Day’. This would act not only as a commemoration of Dr Li but also as an annual reminder of the importance of free speech as guaranteed by the Chinese constitution. [Note: Li Wenliang was an ophthalmologist who was punished and publicly shamed for attempting to warn colleagues of the danger of the coronavirus in late December 2019. Infected with the virus himself, he died on 7 February 2020. There was widespread outrage over his treatment. He was later exonerated by an official inquiry and the Party offered his family a ‘solemn apology’.]
- Immediately ban the abhorrent practice of Internet policing used to shut down individuals’ WeChat and WeiBo accounts [the most common form of online communication in China]. The constant abuse and invasion of citizen’s online privacy must also come to an end. Such autocratic practices contravene the legitimate right of free speech as guaranteed under the law.
- The authorities must cease and desist from the intimidation of teachers, medical personnel and writers accused of ‘thought crimes’. [Note: This is a reference to the recent intimidation of university professors in Wuhan; the silencing of the doctors Li Wenliang and Ai Fen; and attacks on Fang Fang, author of Wuhan Diary, as well as those who support her.]
- I hereby reaffirm my July 2018 call for the government to institute a Sunshine Policy, one requiring officials to gazette their assets. As I previously noted: ‘If you have nothing to hide then implement so everything will finally be out in the open!’ [Note: quoted from ‘Hope Five’ in Xu Zhangrun, ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes’, China Heritage, 1 August 2018.]
- Remove Communist Party cells from all academic and educational institutions, in particular in tertiary, secondary and primary schools.
- Immediately bring an end to the ceaseless and nationwide policy of forced evictions and demolitions that constitute an egregious abuse of the right of private property. Private property must be protected in accordance with the law and the constitution. It is imperative to return the right of ownership to the people themselves and to eliminate once and for all the state-sanctioned monopoly exercised by the Communist Party as China’s sole landlord.
In line with these suggestions let me go a step further and say that it is high time that the ‘Mao Mausoleum’ sitting in the heart of Tiananmen Square which is devoted to the commemoration of one person should by all rights be converted into a ‘Hall for the Celebration of the Upright Men and Women of the Chinese World’. Furthermore, the public space that is Tiananmen Square should truly be open to and enjoyed by the public on a constant basis. It could, for example, well host a weekly Sunday Market. As for the Lake Palaces of Zhongnanhai [on the western flank of the Palace Museum in central Beijing, which were imperial gardens before 1912 and public gardens during the first half of the twentieth century before the Communist party-state occupied them as their headquarters and for the living quarters of party-state leaders in 1949], these too are a public property that has been occupied by the sole political party and they also house the private residences of its high-level nomenklatura. They should rightly be re-opened as an Antiquities Park for public use. Other changes that accord with this logic should include an end to media censorship and the ban on independent political parties.
All in all, it is high time that long-delayed hopes for political reform [mooted from the early 1980s] are finally realised in practicable ways. To that end, I urge the National People’s Congress to draw up a detailed timetable for political reform laying out the process whereby China can become a modern constitutional democracy and a people’s republic that is worthy of the name. This is not the time for our nation to continue along the path of backsliding.
In the conclusion to my February cri de coeur I said: ‘Writing as I do, I can all too easily predict that I will be subjected to new punishments; indeed, this may well even be the last thing I write. But that is not up to me.’ I have claimed my right to speak out again here and I end this appeal with the words of the Soviet writer Varlam Shalamov:
A long, long row of lonely graves
Are all I remember now.
And I should have lain myself there,
Laid my bare body down there,
Had I not taken a vow:
To sing and to weep to the very end
And never to heed the pain.
— quoted by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in Gulag Archipelago
[see ‘Poetry Under a Tombstone, Truth Under a Stone’,
a chapter in Gulag Archipelago, vol.3, p.105 — trans.]
- 許章潤, ‘世界文明大洋上的中國孤舟——全球體系背景下新冠疫情的政治觀與文明論’, 《中國：歷史與未來》, 2020年5月21; and,
- 許章潤, ‘世界文明大洋上的中國孤舟——全球體系背景下新冠疫情的政治觀與文明論’, 《合媒體》, 2020年5月21日