‘The Chinese intelligentsia is missing in action!’ This sentiment is expressed by a small, disparate and embattled number of independent-minded individuals in the People’s Republic of China.
Over the years, we have featured some of their voices in China Heritage — be it in their defense of Professor Xu Zhangrun in 2019, during the first phase of the coronavirus epidemic in 2020, as well as in the present series, Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium.
Readers will be familiar with the idea of the ‘Velvet Prison’, a metaphor devised by the Hungarian writer Miklós Haraszti to describe carceral intellectual and cultural life in the countries of the Eastern Bloc. I adapted Haraszti’s trope to describe reformist-era Chinese culture and intellectual life in the 1980s (see the second edition of Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience, New York, 1988). In 2017, we revisited the Velvet Prison in Xi Jinping’s China in the form of the paired essays Less Velvet, More Prison and Elephants & Anacondas.
Since 1989, establishment Chinese intellectuals, including noted members of the soi-disant ‘liberal intelligentsia’, have shied away from ‘dissidents’. Over the decades, some prominent intellectual historians reputed internationally as being independent-minded, have told me that dissidents, including Liu Xiaobo, lawyers and civic activists, should not be classified as 知識分子 zhīshi fènzǐ, intellectuals, at all. I noted that these same figures, who are known for their magisterial analysis of Chinese thought, life and society, also declined to speak up in support of Liu and Charter 08 in late 2008 (see my essay China’s Promise).
Under Xi Jinping’s rule, the majority of China’s establishment intellectuals have remained silent as a daring few have spoken out in opposition to all forms of official censorship and in defense of academic freedom. They are, as I have noted elsewhere, the contemporary version of the ‘Skin-and-Hair Intelligentsia’ 皮毛知識界 pímáo zhīshijiè that Mao Zedong spoke about with such contempt following the Anti-Rightist Purge of 1957 (see Dai Qing at Eighty and, for an ongoing survey of China’s intellectual establishment, see Reading the China Dream).
In Fear, Fury & Protest — three years of viral alarm, chapter twenty-two of Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, we reprinted a prescient analysis of the looming systemic failure of China’s coronavirus policies written by Xu Zhangrun in February 2020. Below, we reprint an appeal to Xi Jinping written by Xu Zhiyong, a prominent civil activist, in January 2020. In it he calls on the leader of China’s party-state to step down from power before it is too late. Xu’s appeal first appeared in ChinaFile on 26 February 2020 and was included as a chapter in Viral Alarm — China Heritage Annual 2020. (For more material on Xu Zhiyong in ChinaFile, see here.)
Shortly after releasing this open letter, Xu Zhiyong was arrested. Following a closed-door trial held in early April 2023, he was sentenced to fourteen years of jail for phantasmagorical crimes against the state (see ‘I Do Not Believe’ — Xu Zhiyong on being jailed, again, 10 April 2023).
For his part, Xu Zhangrun remains isolated in his apartment in the western suburbs of the Chinese capital, undaunted. During 2022, he surreptitiously published two books with an independent publisher in New York (see Notre seul parapluie — ‘Life is a shitstorm, in which art is our only umbrella.’).
As China is wracked by a nationwide coronavirus disaster resulting from two years of dilatory planning and ill-conceived policies executed in a cavalier manner, we commemorate Xu Zhiyong’s outspoken daring.
While China’s establishment intellectuals remained cowed, others refused to be keep quiet. First, on the eve of the Twentieth Party Congress in October 2022, Peng Zaizhou called for Xi Jinping to resign. Then workers in Zhengzhou rebelled against unreasonable lock-down policies exploitative and labour practices. Following a tragic apartment fire in Urumqi, men and women in dozens of cities and even more universities throughout China protested against the government’s policies (see It’s My Duty). Throughout, China’s Skin-and-Hair Intelligentsia, people who have profited immeasurably from economic reform and previous (circumscribed) openness, stood by.
In late 2022, the warnings issued in early 2020 by writers of conscience like Xu Zhiyong and Xu Zhangrun, as well as their dire predictions, continued to resound, an indictment of Xi Jinping and the Chinese party-state over which he rules.
— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
Distinguished Fellow, Asia Society
22 December 2022
Update, 10 April 2023:
- ‘I Do Not Believe’ — Xu Zhiyong on being jailed, again, 10 April 2023
Selected Material from Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium:
- Appendix XXVII 謔— When Zig Turns Into Zag the Joke is on Everyone, 12 December 2022
- Appendix XXVIII 週而復始 — In My End is My Beginning — Chairman Xi’s New Clothes, 13 December 2022
- Appendix XXIX 孤傲 — Ever More Arrogant & Proud — Xi Jinping’s Rule in the End-time of Covid, 14 December 2022
Dear Chairman Xi, It’s Time for You to Go
Translated and Annotated by Geremie R. Barmé
26 February 2020
Xu Zhiyong is a legal scholar and former university lecturer from central China with a doctorate from Peking University. He co-founded the New Citizens Movement, a group that advocated civil rights and China’s peaceful transition to constitutional rule. Detained in July 2013, he was sentenced to four years’ jail in 2014 for “gathering crowds to disrupt public order.” Following his release, he continued to encourage his supporters through his online writing. He went into hiding in late 2019. The following open letter, which was released on February 4, 2020, was written while he was on the run. On February 15, Xu was detained in the southern city of Guangzhou.
This is the second letter that Xu Zhiyong addressed to Xi Jinping. In the first, published when Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012, the author expressed hope that Xi would not only continue the country’s economic reforms but that he would also guide China towards substantive political change. Seven years later, Xu’s hopes, and his tone, have changed markedly. Now, for the sake of the country, its people, and even history itself, the author appeals to Xi Jinping to step down.
The expression used in the Chinese title of Xu Zhiyong’s open letter, quàntuì shū (勸退書), literally means a written admonishment urging retirement [from a position]. In his letter, the author often employs shorthand political expressions, heavily freighted terms, as well as elliptical literary turns of phrase. The following translation attempts to capture the writer’s pointed, and somewhat jocular, tone. Where necessary, notes and subheadings have been added; they are indicated by brackets.
— Geremie R. Barmé
I previously addressed an open letter to you; that was seven years ago. Then, I had expressed hope that, under your stewardship, China might move in the direction of constitutional democracy. I was merely expressing a sentiment shared by a vast number of our fellow countrymen and women. In response, you locked me up for four years. Even now, your associates are searching for me high and low so they can throw me back into jail.
Despite all of this, I remain kindly disposed towards you. In fact, I feel solicitude towards all people. In actual fact, I don’t really think that you are a bad person, as such; it’s simply that you’re not all that bright. So, I have decided to write to you again, although today my advice which—as was also the case in the past—I believe sums up a widely held sentiment, is somewhat different. You see, Mr. Xi Jinping, now I am calling on you to step down.
You’re Not a Capable Political Leader
Real political leaders have true vision; at least they have a clear idea of the direction in which they want to lead others. Deng Xiaoping, for example, was a simple pragmatist; he summed up his credo in a famous line: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, so long as it catches rats.” Over time, he also articulated his approach in terms of the “Reform and Opening-Up” policy [which was initiated by the Communist Party starting in the early 1980s]. For his part, [Party General Secretary] Jiang Zemin had that theory about the “Three Represents” [an umbrella “theory” related more to practical policies than ideological dogmas] and he kept relatively quiet as his administration allowed people to focus on making money. Hu Jintao [who was Party leader from 2003 to 2012] was known for promoting the concept of the “Harmonious Society,” something that could be summed up in the line “don’t make trouble.”
And you? What have you got?
The “China Dream?” Come on: That’s plagiarized from the Americans; even so, you still can’t really explain what it means. National revival? According to the standards of what particular dynasty? You have amassed dictatorial powers, and through your policies you have increasingly distorted the market. Now, the nation’s economy is trending downwards. You call this a revival? You have also espoused building a “beautiful China.” But that’s all just put out there for show; what about the deeply held aspirations people have to enjoy true equality, justice, freedom, and happiness? You tout things like the “Four Self-Confidences,” the “Eight Clarifications” and the “Fourteen Perseveres.” Sure, you’ve got a grab-bag of such slogans, but no one has a clue what any of them really means.
Where do you really think you are taking China? Do you have any clue yourself? You talk up the Reform and Opening-Up policy at the same time that you are trying to resuscitate the corpse of Marxism-Leninism. On the one hand, you declare that we need to modernize government operations, but on the other you demand that the Communist Party has to be in charge of everything. At the same time you make reassuring gestures to private industry, you prop up the state-controlled industrial sector with everything you’ve got. So what’s it going to be: democracy and the rule of law, which you also talk about, or one-man rule and autocracy? The market economy or the planned economy? Modernization or re-Cultural Revolutionization? You believe that you can marry the ethos of class struggle that underpinned the first 30 years of the People’s Republic to the Reform and Opening-Up policies of 1979 to 2009. Well, you may claim that the former doesn’t preclude the latter, but if this isn’t all a contradiction in terms, what is it? It’s not that I don’t get it [a reference to a famous song by the rocker Cui Jian]; nor is it that none of us get it. The simple truth is that no one can get it!
A real politician has an unswerving will as well as an indomitable spirit. Remember that Deng Xiaoping rose to preeminent power three times, but that he weathered being purged three times as well? Eventually it was his “white-black cat” formulation that ended up holding sway over China. Following [the June 4 Beijing Massacre of] 1989, he went on a Southern Tour [in early 1992 to re-energize stalled reformist policies] and declared that anyone who resisted further economic reform should step down. Initially, many people fantasized that you’d show yourself to be the kind of strong new leader the nation needed, but you’ve let everyone down. You swerve willy-nilly from the left to the right; no one can pin you down. Vladimir Putin launched a blitzkrieg on Crimea and you think you can get away with something similar in the South China Sea. But you are far too indecisive to see it through. Sure, you built a few airports but that was it. And as for the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands—you made an issue of them for the best part of a year, but all you actually managed to do was further bolster the U.S.-Japan alliance. And, then, you dropped the issue. Back in 2017, you started building a military road at Doklam on the border with India, but the instant [Indian Prime Minister] Narendra Modi showed some grit you backed down just like some blowhard Beijing street punk.
You’re not Putin, or Modi, and you’re certainly not Trump. You flirt with Cultural Revolution fanaticism, but you are no true-believing Leftist; you lurch towards bellicose nationalism, but you’re no hawk, either. You’re a big nothing. You’d like to revive the Cultural Revolution and you have tried it on, but the moment you run up against any real opposition you chicken out. You talk up a storm with all of that stuff about “self-confidence” [Note: Xi’s “confidence doctrine” declares that “we must be confident in our chosen path, confident in our political system, and confident in our guiding theories and confident in our culture”], but the reality is that you’re the one lacking confidence. Remember that video clip of you with your hands in your pockets? Trump gives you a glare. Embarrassed, you immediately pull your hands out. How can you behave like that? You’re supposed to be the leader of a major world power.
A real politician should have an overarching strategic vision. All you’ve managed to do is concoct a new term—“inappropriate discussion” [妄议, a threat against unwelcome gossip and speculation, used in new Party regulations in March 2019]—and if a cadre or bureaucrat criticizes, even privately, any of your policies it becomes Crime Number One in your anti-corruption campaign. Previously, numerous intellectuals and various [Party-state and business] elites were reformers or idealists who favored introducing a form of constitutional democracy to China. They hoped that the country could gradually evolve and move on [from one-party rule]. During the Hu-Wen era [2003 to 2012], there was a limited space for such deliberations, as well as significant hope. There was even a place in the establishment for talented reformist thinkers like Yu Jianrong.
But, the way you see it, anyone who is infected by ideas related to constitutional democracy—you’ve called them “two-faced people” [cadres who, while appearing to comply with Xi’s strict regime, resist or undermine it]—must not only be blocked from government employment, they must also be actively repressed. But, let me ask you: How many dyed-in-the-wool “one-faced people” [who fully support you] do you really think there are? The Reform and Opening-Up policies have been in place for four decades, and devotées of the Cultural Revolution are now a rare and dying breed. Cixi, the Manchu Empress Dowager [who ruled during the closing decades of the Qing dynasty from 1860 to 1908] was canny enough to employ competent Han officials like Zhang Zhidong and Li Hongzhang [even though the dominant Manchu-Qing nobles and loyalists objected to placing trust in anyone from the conquered Han]. But her successor, Zaifeng, [prince-regent and de facto ruler from late 1908 until the collapse of the dynasty in late 1911], relied instead entirely on fellow Manchus [and these conservative loyalists contributed directly to dynastic disaster]. But to my point: How many true talents in society and government do you honestly think are “one-faced people?” If your actions accorded both with prevailing historical trends and the political tenor of the times as you judiciously manage the nation’s affairs, people would readily support you. Instead, we have a befuddled ruler who has lost The Way. Why would anyone really want to go down with you?
Real politicians are wise enough to engage the services of the most competent people, regardless of their background. They empower the most outstanding and capable individuals. Deng Xiaoping had Hu Yaobang transferred to Beijing and supported his rise [to become Communist Party General Secretary in 1981]. He did so despite the fact that, until then, he and Hu were hardly what you would call drinking buddies. Although Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao both had their factional political interests and supporters, during their eras [Jiang led the Party from 1989 to 2003 and Hu from 2003 to 2012] the various groupings and government agencies under them developed a workable equilibrium. But you? Apart from your intimates, your old Young Turks from Fujian and Zhejiang [where Xi had served in leading government and Party roles], you don’t have anyone to rely on. [Note: Recent personnel changes highlighted this when, in early February 2020, Xi replaced leaders in Hubei province and in the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing with personal allies and confidantes.]
The only time you probably feel truly secure is when you’re in the company of your banquet buddies. Real factionalism [which Xi Jinping rails against tirelessly], the clustering together of people in nefarious cliques—that’s what you get when you favor close friends and family over the most talented people. [As the old saying goes,] “if the main roof beam is crooked, all the cross-beams will be askew”; if the bureaucracy is beclouded by murky malfeasance, who do you think is responsible for producing the smoke in the first place? Do you really think China lacks suitably talented people? The fellow who has been Imperial Tutor in three courts [that is, the Politburo Standing Committee ideologue Wang Huning who was also a stalwart under both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao] may have been a talent in his day, but even that well has long since run dry. How can a mighty steed roam the land confidently if it only has the pusillanimous heart of a barnyard fowl?
In ruling over a country, a real politician identifies and devotes himself to crucial policy areas while remaining mindful not to fall into the trap of micromanaging things. Deng was an aficionado of bridge, and he was always aware of the hand he had been dealt. And here you are, presiding over 10 special leading groups. [Note: By creating numerous such groups, Xi dominates every aspect of civilian government which, by all rights, should be the province of the State Council and its Premier, Li Keqiang.] You have a hand in absolutely every pie, including soccer and toilets. [Note: Xi has involved himself in raising the national standard of the sport of soccer; he is also an advocate of a “toilet revolution,” one aimed at cleaning up the nation’s conveniences.] Official documents pile up like mountains on your desk and you are drowning in an endless sea of meetings. You don’t even have time to read everything that’s put in front of you, so how can you possibly stand above the fray and have the kind of perspective that’s necessary to run a country like China? Fiscal management and the economy—you’re in charge of all of that as well! What’s the premier of the State Council [Li Keqiang] supposed to do? Do you have any particular expertise in economic matters? If not, then hand the responsibility to someone who does. Any political leader worth their salt would know to do that.
A competent politician is imminently practical and decisive. They know what is, and what is not, feasible. But there you are with your extravagant gestures like those policies related to the Xiong’an New Area, the Belt and Road Initiative, and Targeted Poverty Alleviation. Even though each of them faces insurmountable odds. Regardless, you press on, clueless and hopeless.
Three Arguments Against the Xiong’an New Area
The Wrong Time:
Take the Xiong’an New Area, announced [in 2017] with great fanfare. It is a project that is supposedly freighted with millennial significance. It’s a pity that your timing was so lousy. Shanghai and Shenzhen flourished during the early decades of the Reform Era when this vast land of ours had immense untapped potential, along with a massive population that could fund national prosperity. The world looked on in awe. But now, the country is facing a middle-income trap and the economic cycle is trending down. Today, wherever you look, there are problems and challenges.
The Wrong Place:
Shanghai became a metropolis for historical reasons and it flourished as an oriental metropolis during the Republican era [especially from the 1910s to the late 1930s]. Shenzhen is congruent with Hong Kong and, thanks to that unique geographical proximity, it is the only one of the original four special economic zones [planned in the 1980s] that was successful. But your Xiong’an New Area is a long way from the sea, it lacks well-developed transportation links, it floats outside the cultural sphere of Beijing, and it is being built on marshes that are little more than a wasteland. It is an extravagant construction project being pushed ahead despite the fact that it signifies a willful squandering of hard-won resources accumulated on the back of the people’s labor.
The Wrong People:
When the Reform and Opening-Up policies were launched [in the early 1980s] they were supported by a national consensus. How many people within your Party or the government itself actually back your decision to build a new city on a swamp? Forcibly relocating the headquarters of state-owned enterprises and their employees to Xiong’an will leave people only able to go home to Beijing on weekends. Back in the day, there was a command [formulated in 1964 by Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, and Deng Xiaoping] to establish Third Front construction projects [that is, major industries that were relocated in the hinterland provinces, partly in response to perceived threats from both the United States and the Soviet Union]. But that was during an era in which totalitarian power in China was reaching an apogee and the Party could freely flout both basic human and practical considerations. Today, things are different.
The so-called need to “disperse excess population” is merely a pretext. In your opinion, and in the management plans your people are drawing up, you need to deal with problematic people and evacuate so-called “low-value people” [that is vulnerable and low-income families] from the capital. It is absurdly rash to throw up an entirely new city in an inconvenient place with no basic services like that. There is a rhyme and reason as to how cities have evolved during the course of human history. Do you have any clue about things like that?
Xiong’an New Area: your timing is wrong, you’ve chosen the wrong place, and the people you are relying on to run the project are ill-suited to the task. Yet, according to your brainstorm this is a Great Plan that will last a millennium!
What’s Wrong with the Belt and Road?
Then there is the Belt and Road Initiative [launched in 2013]. On the surface, it looks like a significant gambit: The exporting of productive capacity as part of a grand strategy aimed at exercising control over the economies of weaker nations while, in the process, gaining influence over their politics so that they will support a new global order that is sympathetic to your brand of authoritarianism. As for the so-called economic rationale behind this grandiose move, the fact of the matter is that you are not going to profit significantly from doing business with the indigent; if that were possible, Wall Street would have been exploiting such an opening for years. Over the decades, China has relied on the wealthy, the European Union, and the United States to build up its foreign reserves. Now, your investment policies are all but out of control; at home you’ve encouraged over-investment in fatuous infrastructure projects, and now you’re pushing a similar strategy on a global scale.
As part of the Belt and Road Initiative, in the space of five years, national-level enterprises have set up over 3,000 investment plans in 185 countries. As a result, billions of dollars from the nation’s financial reserves are being squandered. People joke that the policy mostly consists of “Major Dumb-fuck Investments” [da sa bi (大撒幣), literally “grand splashes of cash,” a jocular punning expression close in pronunciation to da sha bi(大傻屄), literally, “Big Dumb Fuck”]. Does anyone honestly think that China has the boundless economic resources to carry on like this? What’ll you do with all of the excess capacity and over-production? Respect the workings of the market, don’t indulge in voluntarist mass political movements, don’t get carried away with yourself. Government should rightly be in the business of supporting export industries, not putting itself in charge of them or directing them on the basis of political fiat.
[In the early 1970s, Mao Zedong employed a] Third World strategy that was aimed at manipulating autocrats big and small in his efforts to influence their politics so that the People’s Republic could join the international community and gain China’s seat at the United Nations. Today, there’s a majority of democratic countries that are far more open and your various Blue, Gold, and Yellow ploys are creating sensational news headlines. [Note: “Blue, Gold, Yellow” 藍金黃 is a shorthand for the covert use of Internet blackmail (blue), bribery (gold), and honey traps (yellow) to achieve commercial and political goals.] Newly elected leaders are refusing to get on board, and many proposals are floundering. Initially, it must have all seemed so clever, but times are a-changing and you’re just making a fool of yourself.
Targeted Alleviation of Poverty: Policy Paucity
On the surface, this sounds like a well-conceived and efficacious policy. There is no doubt that any policy that favors particular agricultural products popular with online shoppers can certainly achieve a measure of success, but that is only so for products in specific rural environments that have attracted particular industry partners. However, investments in and the marketing of such high-quality agricultural produce that are themselves, in fact, the outcome of marketplace mechanisms are being falsely claimed as proof of the success of the Party. Industry support for the amelioration of poverty should be something regulated by markets, not the result of dirigiste government policy. Over the long term, ignoring market mechanisms will lead to policy failures.
Then, within your poverty alleviation plan there is an emphasis on population relocation: You move people from the mountains to the plains, and, while the housing provided looks pretty flashy, the inhabitants can’t find jobs. Large numbers of people are faced with a new and inconvenient living environment and many of them simply abandon the properties they’ve been allocated. The more idealistic aspects of the policy focus on resolving the situation of impoverished individuals. Under the conditions of a functioning marketplace, apart from those suffering from debilitating illness or advanced age, the genuinely poor are generally poor due either to indolence or sheer obduracy. If you are determined to enrich people like that regardless, and as part of a local project you decide that you’ll give them a flock of ten sheep, I can assure you that within a year not one of the animals will be left. Overblown budgets, vast quantities of goods, and armies of people are being devoted to a vainglorious undertaking that is showing no practical or sustainable results.
Providing social security is a basic aspect of good governance, as are free education, free medical care for serious health conditions, and a guaranteed monthly pension of 500 renminbi. That’s all that you need to do. The government should at least be responsible for these things; the rest can be left up to the market. However, over the last decade, overall the pension has only risen a measly 40 renminbi from 60 renminbi to 100 renminbi. The money that has been allocated to “targeted poverty alleviation” thus far could have long ago resolved real poverty. How come something that should be so simple is, under you, being spun into something so byzantine? It’s because you are spot-off: You are off the mark when it comes to your understanding of issues, and off the mark in terms of basic rational government responses.
Your Incompetence is on Display in Times of Crisis
A competent political leader is not back-footed when confronted with a crisis; in fact, such leaders find opportunity in times of disorder. In your case, however, you are feckless in the face of every major crisis. Let me illustrate my point with three examples:
1. The Sino-American Trade War:
If you had initially made a sober evaluation of the unfolding situation and responded with a measure of humility, treating the challenge of a trade war as a potentially positive opportunity, and showed some real grit in pursuing substantive further economic reforms [in China itself], you certainly would not have ended up with such passive responses. [There’s an old truism from Sun Tzu’s Art of War (translation by John Minford) which says:] “Know the enemy, know yourself, and victory is never in doubt, not in a hundred battles.” But you know neither your opponent nor yourself; the minute you take to the battlefield you make a big show of “rolling up one’s sleeves” [a mocking reference to one of Xi’s macho sayings about getting stuck into hard work] and demanding a tooth for a tooth. When your opponent shows their hand, however, it’s obvious who’s in a winning position after only a few rounds have been fought. Trump is bellicose by nature, but he needs a worthy opponent capable of working towards an agreement. The Americans have had trade conflicts both with Japan and with the European Union, but they have been able to settle their differences and come to an accommodation.
There are those who say that the trade war is not really about money at all, that it disguises an existential threat—that is, that it’s actually about the very survival of the Communist Party itself [the trade war is seen by many as being part of an overall and ongoing American strategy aimed at undermining and eventually engineering the overthrow of China’s one-party state]. When the Cold War came to an end with the victory of the West in the 1990s, why do you think the world didn’t try and snuff out your Communist Party then? It was because China was in the midst of its Reform and Opening-Up push. Those policies made everyone feel that there was some hope for China’s future. In recent years, however, the nation has engaged reverse gear, and we’ve been moving backwards at full throttle. Economic reform is in retreat; democratization is in retreat; basic human rights are in retreat. It’s also no coincidence that lifetime tenure for Party-state leaders has made a return [giving Xi Jiping an indefinite hold on power], that the grand banner of Marxism is once again raised on high, and that the Cold War has been reignited. The Sino-American Trade War is not limited to the economic sphere; it is also about ideological competition, it is a continuation of the original Cold War. It has come about as a result of our own mucking around.
2. The Pro-democracy Protests in Hong Kong:
The groundswell of modern global history is a formidable force. Seen from that perspective, the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong is not some marginal epiphenomenon. Deng Xiaoping summed up his overall strategy towards the territory using the slogans “One Country, Two Systems” and “No Change for 50 Years” [to the agreed arrangements governing Hong Kong after the mainland absorbed the territory on July 1, 1997]. According to that approach, even after half a century [of mainland rule in China, that is from 1997 to 2047] change would still be unnecessary since, by then, Hong Kong would not have been assimilated into mainland China as much as the mainland would have been transformed by Hong Kong.
Over the past two decades, however, and in particular during the past seven years [during which Xi has been in charge], you Communists have relentlessly pressured Hong Kong by chipping away at their basic freedoms and legal system. Since the second half of 2018, there have been major transformations around the globe that have shown that Hong Kong is actually on the cutting edge of a wave of more profound change. The victory that the Hong Kong citizen protests achieved in facing down the extradition law have transformed previous efforts in the territory aimed at maintaining a status quo into what is actually a far more proactive struggle for greater civil rights.
A canny political leader would respond to global trends and work out how Hong Kong might further its claims for freedom and democracy. Even from the point of view of self-interest, you should know that any greater latitude allowed to Hong Kong would not result in a supposed assault on the mainland; they are, after all, two very different systems. But you have opted for a course of action utterly detrimental to your own best interests: Every act of resistance on the part of the demonstrators has been met by your obstinacy, which in turn incites ever greater resistance. [That dynamic means that] even when you make a moderate concession it has only served to exacerbate the resistance, in response to which your lot has only dug its heels in further while the defiance of the protesters has been inflamed. On the back of that came yet another minuscule flip-flop. And so it has gone on, and you’ve ended up being stymied and frustrated at every turn. But, then again, calls for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong are in themselves a good thing; they may serve to embolden people on the mainland.
3. The Coronavirus Epidemic in Wuhan:
The first infected person appeared on December 1, 2019; by the end of the month Wuhan’s hospitals were full of them. Yet the local police intimidated the eight doctors who tried to raise the alarm and CCTV set about “dispelling rumors.” These acts of connivance were aimed at preventing the truth from getting out. By January 12, 2020 at the latest, when the Center for Disease Control and Prevention published details of the genetic makeup of the virus, you should have been completely aware of what was going on [Note: An official account published in mid-February revealed that, on his own admission, Xi Jinping was cognizant of the situation as early as January 7 and was supposedly personally orchestrating the response] but you continued to delay releasing information about the actual situation. Your prevarication led to an unconfined and explosive spread of what is now a nationwide epidemic. The lessons of [the SARS outbreak in] 2003 are right there in front of your eyes. Do you really mean to tell us that you are completely out of touch and lacking any sensitivity to these facts?
A disaster is bad enough, but bungled leadership can make it much worse. In this case, it resulted in a chaotic response. You suddenly announced precipitately that the city of Wuhan would be quarantined, an act that further betrayed your basic ignorance of how a modern society actually works. The practical measures taken should have been precise and involved targeted quarantines. Instead, you decided to go the whole hog and, with the stroke of a pen, you put over nine million people in lockdown. When this masterstroke was announced, there was already a serious shortage of medical supplies and hospitals in Wuhan were full to capacity. As a result, large numbers of infected individuals could not be properly tested, let alone quarantined and treated. The epidemic continued to spread apace. Some badly infected people were fearful that they would never receive treatment and they committed suicide out of despair. Then there was the tragic case of the father who was placed under quarantine and forced to leave his handicapped son who died as a result of neglect. The government should have focused its efforts on ascertaining accurate information and proactively formulating specialist treatment procedures on the basis of the best scientific evidence and advice available. At one point you even claimed that you were “personally overseeing and supervising the response” to the crisis. Well, your guidance was nothing less than shambolic.
You’re no politician. You’re far inferior to Deng Xiaoping. You have proved that you lack the most rudimentary competences. Yet you remain perversely unaware of your limitations; you actually think you are more formidable than Deng ever was and you have the hubris to presume that you are on par with Mao Zedong. Furthermore, despite the fact that you often mispronounce words [when you read speeches] you have an embarrassing penchant for making erudite references and quoting classical texts. You’re as busy as a bee alright, and you’ve fostered a new personality cult. One presumes that in your youth you never thought you’d get this far, and your evident inferiority complex certainly does betray you, though nowadays you’ve changed a lot. Of course, it’s easy for anyone who surrounds themselves with sycophants to develop an exaggerated sense of themselves. That’s made all the worse by a system that censors discordant views and leaves room only for fawning approval. There are no voices that dare to disagree.
Don’t Go Against the Tide of History
A lack of brainpower is forgivable, since after all, real talents are as rare as hen’s teeth. If you are placing yourself on the same level as Mao, I can understand that you now have unrealistic expectations for yourself. Your greatest problem is that you are simply moving against the tide of history; you think you can go back to Liangjiahe [in rural Shaanxi, where Xi was sent as a rusticated youth in 1969 and subsequently enjoyed a fledgling career as a local Party boss].
The success of the Reform and Opening-Up policies tell a story of totalitarianism in retreat and the emergence of freedom. Having previously been omnipresent, the Communist Party gradually withdrew from its overweening role in the life of the nation, and the main thrust of the Reforms [both of the economy and government] saw a tentative separation between Party and state; political control over industry and business was also loosened. With the slow relaxation of state control of the economy, limited free enterprise and the market developed and, as a result, we enjoyed three decades of prosperity and progress. But you’re fixated on [Mao’s policy of the 1970s in which he declared that] “the Communist Party rules in every direction—north, south, east, west, as well as in the center.” You want Party Committees in state-owned enterprises to have the final say over business decisions; you even require that private companies install Party branches. Even Feng Lun [a loyal “red capitalist” real estate magnate] revealed [in early January this year] that he had been forced to retire by the Party [and his assets were absorbed by the state].
Massive industrial wealth accrued over long years of work—that is, private property—is in effect being taken over without compensation by the Party branches. It sure is what you’d call “communism” [gongchan, 共產, the Chinese word for “Communism,” literally means “shared property”], isn’t it? As for village-level democracy [and the trialing of local elections] experimented with over many years, that is all giving way to Party secretaries who are taking complete control of village affairs. These days, even the heads of local neighborhood property management committees [that oversee apartment complexes] have to be Party members. The Party has gone from a gradual withdrawal to a full-scale return. In this country, history too is moving in reverse.
The Threat to Private Property
The core of any market economy is the protection of private property and the use of market mechanisms to allocate resources. The move from “Big and Public” [a 1958 slogan that summed up the radical nationalization of assets and productive means during the 1950s, in particular the Great Leap Forward, which transformed the private realm, from small businesses and farms to major industries into public collectives that were, in reality, entirely controlled by the Communists, with disastrous and murderous results] to the growth of private property; the abandonment of the absolute planned economy to allow for market mechanisms—these were the features of the three decades of economic reform. But over the past few years, you have emphasized and supported directly the leading role of state-owned enterprises. Why don’t you throw your support behind the private economy [which generates more jobs and tax revenues]? That’s because you are hidebound by your Communist Party ideology; it’s also why China’s entrepreneurial class is on edge. No matter how many gestures you make to calm their nerves, they remain unconvinced. Why did that statement you made [in October 2018] that “private corporations have fulfilled their mission” cause such a stir? Don’t forget, this is China—a country where the painful memories of the past are fresh, including the forced nationalization and communization [of the 1950s], the Anti-Rightist Movement [of 1957 that saw the denunciation and exile of hundreds of thousands of educated men and women] and the Cultural Revolution. The basic tenor of Communist Party rule [over the 70 years since 1949] has been the pursuit of politics via mass mobilizations and political movements. All of that had worn very thin in the lead-up to the implementation of the new reform policies [from the late 1970s]. But you’re still in favor of voluntarism and mass movements. The campaign against environmental pollution, for instance, has been used as an excuse to wipe out countless small business enterprises. The market isn’t doing it; it’s the result of the application of naked political power, part of a politically motivated process to allocate resources away from the private sector. The move away from the market back towards a planned economy is a telltale sign of regression.
The Threat to Collective Leadership
Collective leadership was an aspect of the Communist Party’s leadership that flourished for decades [from the late 1970s]. It started with Deng Xiaoping’s formal support in the early 1980s [leading to a revision of the Chinese Constitution after the era of Mao’s near one-man rule, from 1966 until his death in 1976], although there was something of a return to more concentrated leadership after [the mass protest movement of] 1989 with the appearance of the so-called “Second Generation Red Core Leadership” [under Jiang Zemin]. Although both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were acclaimed as core Party leaders, they fundamentally led collective leadership teams, with each member of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee taking charge of specific policy portfolios. Yet again, over the last few years, the collective has been fading out as The One [that is, Xi Jinping] has occupied center stage.
About six months before the “ink splashing incident” [when a young woman splattered Xi Jinping’s official portrait with black ink in 2018], you were already the only political leader being featured in the news. Other members of the Politburo were nowhere to be seen. Massive copies of your portrait were being produced and put on display in venues both large and small. Then there was all that bravado about “rolling up shirt sleeves”. After the shock of the ink splash, the personality cult went into abeyance for a while, though there is no evidence that it has actually been abandoned.
There are those who argue that China needs a strong-man to lead it. I’d posit that the kind of authority figure we need should be more like Chiang Ching-kuo [the late Nationalist Party president on Taiwan and son of the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek who, as ruler, shepherded the way to the island’s ending martial law and eventually undertaking political and social reforms that would transform it into a modern democracy]. But you have no desire to go with the flow of history. If you are determined to set yourself against history, you will surely visit disaster upon this country. What China needs above all other things is Freedom! Only with freedom will creativity truly flourish and progress be possible. With your move away from collective leadership in favor of your own one-man dictatorship, you are driving the country backwards.
The Threat of One-Man Rule
The Communist Party, acting on the basis of hard-won historical insight, decided to abandon life-long tenure for political leaders [in the early 1980s]. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao [who led the Chinese Party-state from 1989 to 2012] basically respected that policy; they were in power for two five-year terms each. Hu Jintao was a model in so far as he did not lust after power or its trappings. Vladimir Putin has manipulated loopholes in the Russian constitution allowing him to stay in power for two decades, and nobody there bothered to revise the constitution [that is, to legally empower him or to thwart him]. Does a real strongman need to bother with a constitutional revision [as Xi did in March 2018]? Even though he had no formal position [either as head of the Party or the State], Deng Xiaoping had the final say as to who should or should not be in power. But things are different in your case: You had to orchestrate that grand hue and cry [of the representatives at the National People’s Congress] to support the revision of the Chinese Constitution so that the article about limited term limits could be deleted [giving Xi extended tenure as leader]. Why so clumsy? Did someone slyly suggest it so they could make you look like a fool? After the constitutional revision, The Economist published a series of [critical analytical] articles about it and the international community came to its senses: people suddenly realized what was afoot in China. A businessman friend of mine told me that in the six months following the [March 2018] change to the Constitution, various elite groups in China—in the world of private business, in state-owned enterprises, and bureaucrats in the system itself—reached something of an informal consensus: You’re a dud. The return to lifetime political tenure is another move you have made that is taking the nation in the wrong direction.
The behavior of Yuan Shikai [a military leader under the Qing dynasty and president of the early Republic of China who declared himself emperor in 1915] believing that he was politically unassailable flew in the face of the historical moment. He was confident in his position as he had showered a favored few with largesse and surrounded himself with loyal lieutenants promoted from his previous military post. But [after he declared himself emperor] they turned against him overnight. Only those canny, unyielding men who have proven themselves victorious on the battlefield end up as formidable political leaders who might be able to get away with bucking historical trends. Yuan Shikai’s ambition simply didn’t stack up, and you show far weaker mettle than him. If he couldn’t pull it off, what chance do you think you have of realizing your dreams? Do you honestly think you can aspire to the role of immortal leader simply by promoting a few crony generals and increasing the wages of the army? Even Zaifeng [the prince-regent and last ruler of the Qing dynasty] managed things better than you.
Don’t Let Stability Maintenance Suck China Dry
Your lack of confidence means that everywhere you look you see threats and you crank up stability maintenance measures in response. [Note: “Stability maintenance,” weiwen, short for “protecting the national status quo and the overall stability of society,” is a term that includes the deployment of paramilitary forces, police, local security officials, neighborhood committees, informal community spies, Internet police and censors, secret service agents, and watchdogs, as well as everyday bureaucratic monitors who hold a brief to be ever vigilant and to maintain order and control over every aspect of society.]
Over a decade ago, one still heard about the government wanting to reduce the size of its bloated bureaucracy, but in recent years there is no such talk. In fact, the numbers of people working in security and the special forces have increased exponentially; swathes of local bureaucrats are also being forced to focus on stability maintenance instead of doing their real jobs. Of course, some people might argue that this is a strategy for dealing with unemployment. But none of these people are meaningfully productive. They generate no value or wealth for the society. Instead, their energies are directed at suppressing creativity. It would be more cost-effective simply to give people money for nothing rather than employing them in jobs like that. How can a country afford to have ever larger numbers of people who produce nothing and create no social goods, individuals whose sole job is to keep tabs on people in the street and random travelers, as well as police those who actually contribute to society?
Xinjiang is a place where, nowadays, people barely even dare exchange glances. Large numbers of Uighurs have been incarcerated in “educational training centers” on the most spurious grounds. A friend told me that during a simple trip to a local supermarket they were stopped at four different police barriers. Phones are confiscated and inspected for no apparent reason and, in the process, individuals are stripped both of their dignity and their privacy. Because of the repressive measures even large numbers of Han people have fled the region; it’s more extreme than [the world depicted in] 1984. What kind of country has ever, anywhere, been run like this? [They now say that] this “Xinjiang Model” will be imposed throughout China Proper. Security checks at subway stations, the recording and storing of over 200 million photographs of individuals are obviously part of a process that is being ratcheted up.
In the name of “stability maintenance” the Wuhan Public Security Bureau threatened and denigrated [eight] doctors who tried to reveal the truth about the coronavirus. CCTV in Beijing contributed by actively opposing their legitimate free expression of opinion by broadcasting a damning story about rumor-mongering. The cover-up of the unfolding crisis in Wuhan contributed directly to what is now a national disaster. Stability at any price—at the price of the freedom of the Chinese, their dignity, as well as their pursuit of happiness? For all of that, is the system really all that stable? Because the system is so ill-at-ease and constantly fearful of any and all unexpected developments, it must employ every conceivable means to lash out, crush, and attack. It ruthlessly eliminates all presumed threats to stability before they can even appear, and by default it classifies all protests as disorderly chaos. There’s a medical commonplace: People who go for years without having had a cold can readily fall prey to a fatal illness. A system that appears to be ultra-stable and is incapable of accommodating change can, when it eventually succumbs, find itself to be beyond treatment and end up digging its own grave.
Budget allocations for internal stability maintenance have long outstripped military spending, and there is a steady uptick. Word has it that all other budgetary items have to make way so that stability maintenance can dig into a bottomless pot of gold. The amount of money devoted to pensions varies wildly, while people in the countryside often cannot even afford to see a doctor. By all rights, the vast amounts squandered on stability maintenance should be devoted to social security. The more unequal the society, the less stable it is. China is trapped in a vicious cycle such that, despite the ever-increased spending on stability, the place is becoming ever more unstable.
The astronomical amounts spent on infrastructure, the squandering of largesse [for grandiose events large and small], not to speak of the extravagant cost of stability maintenance—through all of these things you are hollowing China out; you are creating a massive debtor nation, essentially “A Beautiful Land of Poverty.” The economy is in recession and we are burdened with colossal debt. Some local governments are already unable to pay the wages of their workers. At what cost then is your vaunted stability? You simply print more money, but with that looms the threat of inflation and a ballooning bill that, eventually, everyone in China is going to have to pay.
The majority of my fellow citizens are “mortgage slaves.” Having been ripped off by the government the first time around, [government-created] inflation will be nothing less than a second act of plunder. If things continue in this fashion, it is imaginable that within a few years the majority of Chinese will be living in much reduced circumstances. Many dynasties throughout history collapsed because of economic depletion; empires simply spent themselves into insolvency. After three successful decades of the Reform and Opening-Up are the Chinese people now fated to suffer a precipitous return to the dark days of Mao-era impoverishment?
China is not the land of peace, prosperity, self-congratulation, and rapid advancement that you imagine it to be in your dreams. I’m deeply concerned about our nation’s future; I am afraid that a system that is so tightly wound up is a dangerously brittle one; and, I’m worried that there is no meaningful or substantive form of civil society that can deal with the situation. For long years now, it has been evident that the responsible citizens of this country are builders. I only hope that the celebrated “inner Party democracy” you Communists talk about has not entirely disappeared. I hope that there is still some room for meaningful change [within the system], change that will give civil society a chance to evolve.
[Early in your tenure] you bemoaned the fact that the Soviet Union collapsed because no “True Man” stood up to protect the system. But how can you expect there to be a “True Man” when you, The Revered One, sits at the pinnacle with millions fawning at the foot of your throne? Autocracy encourages sycophants to crowd around the Emperor, but this particular Emperor’s new clothes are on full display for all to see. Yet, even now, the people of China dare not “comment inappropriately” about what is in front of them. Well, I’m like that kid who blurted out the truth—the Emperor has no clothes!
Sometimes I look up at the star-filled sky and ask myself: Who am I and why am I here? Have you ever asked yourself such questions? Occasionally, when I find myself at some vantage point, I look down at the world spread out below and think to myself: I am but a speck of dust. Have you ever done that? Life is so short, why delude yourself and cleave to folly? Have you ever stopped to ponder such things?
The Great Way is one that allows all to share in the bounty of the world. How can the Mountains and Rivers only be of one color—red? [Note: “Mountains and Rivers” is a poetic term for the geopolitical realm of China.] The roiling tides of the world are irresistible, why strain so strenuously and fight against them? Soon you’ll reach the end of your second [five-year] term in office. I submit that it is high time that you called it quits and just stay at home.
In the classic [Book of Changes] it says: “The Dragon overreaches himself, there is regret.” Don’t delay until you are confronted by an unbearable tragedy. Then it’ll certainly be too late for regrets.
— Xu Zhiyong, a citizen of China
January 2020, written while on the run