The Epoch Times on Monday reported on the latest in a series of letters written by Chinese political and business elites criticizing dictator Xi Jinping’s leadership during the coronavirus crisis.
The most recent critique appears to have been written after the disappearance of real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, who was viewed as a “princeling” of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The letter was cosigned by five former senior Communist Party officials, none of whom went on the record to confirm or deny the authenticity of the letter as of Monday morning.
According to Epoch Times, the demands made in the letter include:
Enact government reform; reject far-leftism; realize universal suffrage in China; give the private sector the same privileges as state-run businesses; protect entrepreneurs’ property; provide stimulus relief funds to people impacted by the virus; ask officials from Wuhan and the National Health Commission to take their responsibility for the epidemic; release detained dissidents; and reevaluate the case of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang.
Ren disappeared two weeks ago after writing an online missive called, “The Lives of the People Are Ruined by the Virus and a Seriously Sick System.” He was far from the only suspicious disappearance related to coronavirus criticism. According to the BBC, at least 20 people associated with Chinese website Wujie News have been arrested or vanished since the site published a letter calling on Xi to resign. One of the earliest whistleblowers in Wuhan, Dr. Ai Fen, evidently disappeared after giving an interview critical of Xi.
The post did not call out Xi by name, but it clearly referred to him as a “clown” and used an “emperor has no clothes” metaphor, blaming the naked emperor for ordering a cover-up of the virus epidemic that cost thousands of lives in China and around the world. He wrote that the Wuhan virus outbreak “verified that the surname of all media is the CCP,” a condemnation he has issued before.
Ren, who was already under close surveillance for past criticisms of the regime, vanished shortly after his post went viral. Chinese authorities refused to discuss his condition or whereabouts with foreign journalists, but personal friends of the missing man said he was arrested along with his son and his secretary.
The Epoch Times suggested Ren’s disappearance might have been part of a factional battle revolving around CCP vice chairman Wang Qishan, a powerful patron of Ren’s who was also one of his teachers in middle school. Another Chinese billionaire named Chen Ping suggested last week that Wang could be part of a special CCP committee to evaluate Xi’s fitness as leader.
Some other letters of unconfirmed origin have been posted online indicating dissatisfaction with Xi’s leadership among senior CCP officials and powerful businessmen. The Epoch Times quoted analysts who said some of these letters might have been intended as blame-shifting by elites who still fear the virus could trigger economic or social collapse in China. Those concerns would seem at odds with the CCP’s insistence that the virus is under control in China and the worst of the crisis has passed.
Bloomberg News on Monday saw more signs of political turbulence in China, the most spectacular being the street battle that erupted between police and citizens of neighboring Hubei and Jiangxi provinces on Friday.
“Chinese leaders were already worried about stability before the Covid-19 outbreak. Now those anxieties are on steroids. The scenes at the Hubei-Jiangxi border will only serve to exacerbate those worries,” predicted Trey McArver of the Trivium China consulting firm.
Bloomberg quoted several Chinese officials expressing concerns about political unrest, especially as the central government tries to get people back to work after lifting lockdown restrictions. Widespread discrimination against residents of Hubei, the province at the center of the epidemic, was cited as a cause of unrest, along with growing awareness among all Chinese that their government was not honest about the scale of the epidemic in Hubei and is still concealing the real outbreak and fatality numbers. Also, some CCP officials reportedly think allowing people in the provinces to fight each other will distract them from blaming the Communist Party or Xi.
An analysis by India’s ANI News on Monday theorized that Xi’s early efforts to downplay the severity of the coronavirus led him to vanish from the national stage during the crucial early weeks and later concoct a revised history that insisted he was quietly managing coronavirus response behind the scenes. This theory suggests Xi laid low because he knew the virus would be seen as a far more serious problem if he became visibly involved with managing the problem, but his strategy to keep the public from panicking cost him some of his carefully-developed prestige.
“Xi’s political star has certainly been challenged over the past 12 months with challenges across a spectrum of issues, including a slowing economy, Hong Kong, cross-strait relations with Taiwan, U.S.-China relations, and China’s international reputation. All in all, Covid-19 and these other challenges and blunders have made Xi vulnerable to criticism. He is less politically unassailable than he was at the start of 2019, for example,” Adam Ni, director of the non-profit China Policy Center, told ANI News.