Sun Feiyang
Original publication:

When the Sky Refuses to Fall: Xu Zhangrun’s Viral Coronavirus Reckoning (2020)

This essay was originally published by Sun Feiyang on his Medium blog on 18 February 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic went into global overdrive. It is a sharp rebuke of a stilted and bombastic denunciation of the CPC authored by Xu Zhangrun, a “dissident” professor of law from China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, translated and avidly promoted by Western “China Watchers” hopeful for Chinese misery.

The text is notable not only for the specifics of its argument, but also as a more general illustration of how bold contemporary predictions can be confidently supported with strong empirical and theoretical fundamentals.



The recent coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan appears to be the latest and greatest “Legitimacy Challenge” to the Communist Party of China (CPC), according to Tsinghua law professor Xu Zhangrun. [1] In his essay titled “Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear,” Xu lays out nine criticisms, which I will summarize and evaluate one by one. He is part of a long tradition of taking any domestic disturbance, whether it be a protest, corruption scandal, or even a natural disaster, and escalating it to “the greatest challenge to the Party’s legitimacy since Tiananmen 1989”:

“[Coronavirus] is a big shock to the legitimacy of the ruling party. I think it could be only second to the June 4 incident of 1989. It’s that big,” said Rong Jian, a writer about politics in Beijing, referring to the armed crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters that year. (NYT, 2020)

The demonstrations on the streets of Hong Kong present China with its biggest political challenge since the pro-democracy movement was crushed in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989. The parallels between the demonstrations in Hong Kong now and those in Beijing, 25 years ago are eerie — and must be profoundly unsettling to the Communist party leadership. (FT, 2014)

The striking journalists have been supported by crowds of demonstrators and by some prominent actresses using social media to broadcast the message to their many millions of online followers. It is arguably the most open and widespread display of dissent since the Tiananmen Square protests almost a quarter of a century ago. (The Telegraph, 2013)

The party said this month that it was investigating Mr. Bo for “serious disciplinary violations,” and his wife, Gu Kailai, in connection with the murder of Neil Heywood, the British businessman who died in Chongqing last November. The scandal poses the biggest challenge to the party elite since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. (NYT, 2012)

“This is the first time public opinion was properly expressed through official channels and had an impact on government policies,” says Liu Jianqiang, a Beijing-based environment writer who is a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. Some commentators regard the orchestrated incident as the most significant public event in China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square student demonstration that was so brutally suppressed. (Nature, 2008)

Claims of political crisis in China erupt across our news so regularly that at some point you start to tune it out. But when a respected Tsinghua professor declares the same verdict, closer attention is called for. Xu became famous in 2018 when he published “Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes,” a jeremiad (his word, not mine) against Xi Jinping’s policies, particularly the removal of term limits. [2] Now, in 2020, his new piece, “Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear” (translated by Geremie R. Barmé), published roughly a week ago in China, is a scathing evaluation of the party’s response to the coronavirus outbreak and of the party itself. His overall theme, discussed in the preface of his piece, is that the Party and Xi Jinping are destroying China and that the people’s rising fury will soon overcome their fear — (and ignite a revolution? overthrow the Party? This part is left unsaid). How true are his claims? Let’s take a closer look.

1. Politics in a New Era of Moral Depletion

“The storied bureaucratic apparatus that is responsible for the unfettered outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan repeatedly hid or misrepresented the facts about the dire nature of the crisis. The dilatory actions of bureaucrats at every level exacerbated the urgency of the situation. Their behavior reflects a complete lack of interest in the welfare and lives of normal people…

…since all of their calculations are solely concerned with maintaining their control; they have convinced themselves that crude exercises of power will suffice.”

This section primarily criticizes CPC’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Xu claims the government was more concerned about Internet censorship than solving the crisis (and backhandedly implies that the government caused the crisis due to inefficient bureaucracy as well as a craven desire for self-preservation).

Turn the clock back a few months, however, and savvy news readers will recall that the great US-China trade war was the supposed generational challenge to the Legitimacy of the CPC. Pro-free market think tanks such as the Unirule Institute in Beijing (where Xu himself is a senior fellow) criticized Xi for failing to appease America’s demands: the weight of American tariffs on a slowing economy would drive people to finally rise up and challenge the party.

Apply Xu’s diagnosis of the CPC to this scenario — did the CPC carry out “crude exercises of power” to maintain control in the face of the trade war? Did they simply disappear unemployed factory workers or goose the wage numbers? No, rather than imagining the tariffs had no economic effect, they sought alternative, non-US trade partners while furiously haggling with the US toward a “phase 1” trade deal.

Granted, every party seeks to stay in control. And yet the pragmatic solutions employed by the CPC in managing the trade war are at odds with Xu’s characterization of a gloomy political monolith which announces edicts from on high. Coronavirus and the associated economic shutdown is a far more serious threat to China’s economic growth than the American tariffs. Correspondingly, the mass mobilization of military and government personnel towards the crisis, as well as the retooling of factories to produce necessary supplies, go far beyond what can be reduced to “crude exercises of power” — it is a methodical and concentrated attempt to contain and resolve the viral outbreak. Outside groups such as the World Health Organization were effusive in their praise, validating the approach taken by the CPC. [3]

The CPC itself carried out a critical evaluation of the early response and identified multiple areas where emergency response and management were not sufficient. [4] What crude regime bothers with niceties like this if it’s satisfied using the bluntest of instruments to maintain control?

As for Internet censorship, even abroad, we’ve seen plenty of myths about coronavirus spread unchecked, heightening panic on a global scale. I’ve personally read far too many viral WeChat posts alleging coronavirus is a US bioweapon or that XYZ herbs cure the virus. This is precisely when censorship is good and necessary. Everyone knows Wuhan is on lockdown. Xu does his home a disservice when he pretends that censorship prevents people from knowing the truth of the Hubei containment.

2. Tyranny in a New Era of Political License

“Secondly, tyranny ultimately corrupts governance as a whole and undermines the technocratic system that has taken decades to build. There has been a system-wide collapse of professional ethics and commitment…

…the people in the system who have now been promoted are in-house Party hacks who slavishly obey orders.”

In this section Xu describes the displacement of China’s flawed-but-competent technocracy of the Jiang and Hu eras with Xi’s yes-men, who care nothing for ethics, competence, or results, but merely exist to flatter the Leader. Thus, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is implied to be merely a banner behind which he carries out his will.

With Xu’s supposed distaste for bureaucratic rot, one gets the feeling that were he to write his article back in 2009, he would instead rail against the rampant corruption at all levels within the Party and how this compromised the structure of the state. Or perhaps Xu really is denying the levels of corruption that existed previously, and he considers the past levels of corruption to be compatible with “professional ethics and commitment.” Whatever the case may be, Xu wants to criticize the current leader, and so PX China (pre-Xi China) is rehabilitated for this purpose.

Corruption was a known issue in China for a long time, and when Xi took power, he named corruption as one of the key issues facing the party that would actually harm its legitimacy. In addition to prosecuting hundreds of corrupt party members (I doubt Xu would care to defend any of them), the CPC instituted new rules against promoting officials with spouses/significant family living abroad or having next of kin within the same organization.

At the same time, Xi’s reforms forced out bureaucrats who had been coasting on sinecures. A Bloomberg article from 2019 highlights the following situation for China’s civil servants:

For centuries, getting a job as a government bureaucrat has been the path to power and relative wealth in China. It also led, in more recent times, to bureaucratic sclerosis and corruption. After President Xi Jinping took office in 2013, he started clamping down on graft, absenteeism, and other abuses.

In the old days, many senior officials would rarely turn up for work — while still collecting monthly paychecks and enjoying perks such as privileged health-care benefits […] But increased inspections and oversight have taken a toll. One senior government official in his early 50s decided to apply for early retirement because his heavy workload sometimes required him to sleep in his office on the tiled floor amid crawling cockroaches, using newspapers for sheets. A 29-year-old civil servant in a provincial capital is rethinking his career as housing prices soar beyond what he can hope to afford on his $522 monthly salary. [5]

So what’s in it for Xi’s yes-men? They’re now expected to work hard and they don’t get paid well. Does Xu really believe the old bureaucrats rolling up the office at 11 am and leaving at 3 pm were competent technocrats that China couldn’t lose? Has there been a convincing defense of any corrupt official where you could say “Ah, this is Xi using corruption as a pretext to deep six a political rival”?

Corruption was rightly identified as a key problem facing the Party and the Party responded vigorously. Xu’s claim that a competent technocracy was hollowed out by yes-men is simply at odds with everything we know about the Chinese bureaucracy in transition from Hu to Xi.

3. A New Era of Attenuated Governance

“In the first place, the economic slowdown is now an undeniable reality, and all indications are that things will only get worse over the current year. This presenting the nation with a situation unrivaled since the economic downturn that followed in the wake of the 1989 ‘disturbances’ [that is, the 4 June Beijing Massacre]. This can only serve to exacerbate further the already problematic situation resulting from the aforementioned ‘organizational discombobulation’ and ‘systemic impotence.’ Equally undeniable is the state of things more broadly including:

  • A collapse in consumer confidence;
  • Widespread panic about the longterm security of private property;
  • Administrative and academic frustration and pent-up anger;
  • A general shutting down of society as a whole; and,
  • A depressed cultural and publishing industry.” [1]

This section is where Xu reveals who he’s truly writing to — and it isn’t his fellow countrymen. Leaving aside the ritual “Worst situation since 1989!”, let’s address the five points of his “state of things”:

  1. Collapse in consumer confidence. This one simply is untrue. Consumer confidence in China has been extraordinarily resilient over the past five years, including the two year trade war — while it will take a hit from the viral outbreak, it will remain on solid footing. [6]

  2. Panic about about the long-term security of private property. This one is telling. Your average Chinese citizen is not worried about the long term security of their main assets, namely homes — the first wave of expiring leases have been renewed in a straightforward manner by the government. [7] The same has happened for farmers and leases on rural land which also received 30 year renewals. [8] Now, I don’t discount that there may be some billionaires who have genuine concerns about the security of their private property, but that’s also not really my priority. It may just be that Xu is far more anxious about the security of the wealthy than I am.

  3. Administrative and academic frustration and pent-up anger. As we discussed before, certain bureaucrats are frustrated that they’re now expected to work hard and that they aren’t able to dip into the public coffers as easily as before. In terms of academic frustration, I am sure that Xu feels frustrated that his academic endeavors aren’t well supported by the government. But plenty of academics would disagree. From Julia Lovell’s Maoism: A Global History:

    When, another seven years after my 2007 encounters with Utopia, I resumed my travels around neo-Maoist circles in 2014, I could perceive a newly contented assurance replacing their previously edgy dissidence. Those working in academia seemed to be flourishing: now, they were busy, important people, for these were fat times for Marxism-Leninism Institutes. Among the urban neo-Maoists I met, there was a near-universal approval of Xi Jinping, who had become a Mao-style figure to be unquestioningly venerated; their anti-state dissent had practically vanished. “There are now people in the government who support our viewpoints,” one told me. “That’s because we’re right. We do it for faith, for belief, for the country. Not for Western bribes. Red Culture is in our genes. We’re bringing it back.” Xi Jinping’s talk of national rejuvenation has stoked the neo-Maoists’ patriotism. [9]
    Marxist academics are flourishing, as you’d expect from a socialist state. Universities over the last decade had over-hired people with foreign degrees in an effort to climb the global academic rankings, which resulted in a preponderance of neoliberal academics in the Chinese academy. Now, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction, and understandably Xu is displeased. While it’s certainly a real phenomenon, I’m skeptical of factionalism among professors translating into widespread populist anger.
  4. A general shutting down of society as a whole. I’m not even sure what this means. Presumably this is about the quarantine in Hubei, but even then, essential services including water, electricity, garbage, food production, medical supply transport, continue, even as they’re strained.

  5. A depressed cultural and publishing industry. This last one also appears to be self-projection. The domestic Chinese box office was primarily topped by domestic films in 2019, while Hollywood had an extremely down year. Domestic hits ran the gamut from animated Chinese mythology (Nezha), science fiction (The Wandering Earth) to feel-good patriotism (My Country, My People). 2018 had a masterpiece of social criticism, Dying to Survive as well. Take it from Chris Fenton, U.S.-Asia Institute trustee and senior advisor to IDW Media Holdings:

    It seems like the Communist Party’s master plan — of using protectionist policies to develop their homegrown product for their own film industry — worked out pretty well. [10]
    Among other notable milestones was the manhua animation about the life of Marx, a new creative venture for a once dry and stuffy Party School. [11] Chinese science fiction writing continued its global breakout, while the music industry also pushed frontiers with the success of Luo Tianyi, vocaloid, hologram and virtual idol. We even had a viral moment when a coronavirus patient in Wuhan was photographed reading Fukuyama in his bed — certainly someone at odds with the party’s ideology. The only way Xu could come to the conclusion that Chinese culture is in a rut is if he was wholly disconnected from his fellow countrymen — Xu would do well to step outside the ivory tower and see for himself.

4. A New Era of Resuscitated Court Politics

“It is only in the last few years that a new kind of hermetically sealed governance has come to the fore and, due to the nature of hidden court politics, it is one that has enabled a sole power-holder while giving license to the darkest kinds of plotting and scheming. It is a rulership structure that stifles change and forecloses the kinds of changes that could support regularized forms of governance.”

The fourth leg of this spider contends that centralization of control under Xi led to the re-emergence of palace intrigue and court politics. Xu contrasts this with Hu’s tenure, commonly referred to as “Nine Dragons Ruling the Waters,” where there was no core leader and decisions were made by committee.

This is yet another attempt at a borrowed historical revisionism by Xu. The factional divide between the Jiang clique and the Hu clique was one of the key features of Western reporting on China during the Hu era. Brookings even named them the “elitist” and “populist” factions, respectively. [12] Does Xu really believe there were no court politics when these two party factions vied for power?

Xu attempts to correlate the consolidation of power in Beijing to an alleged failure of response in Wuhan, but it’s bizarre to claim that Hu’s committee rule would have made Wuhan any better prepared for a black swan event such as coronavirus. Compare the 2003 response to SARS to coronavirus — even perennially anti-China publications like Foreign Policy will tell you the coronavirus response has far surpassed the SARS response. [13] With nothing else from Xu, we are simply asked to please take him at his word that everything bad is a result of the end of committee rule in the Politburo.

5. A New Era of Big Data Totalitarianism and WeChat Terror

“By the same token, the very channels of communication that should in normal circumstances exist for the dissemination of public information are strangled, and a meaningful, civic early-warning system that could play a crucial role at times of local or national emergency is thereby outlawed. What we have in its place is an evolving military tyranny that is underpinned by an ideology cobbled together from strains of traditional harsh Chinese Legalist thought wedded to an admix of the Leninist-Stalinist interpretation of Marxism along with the ‘Germano-Aryan’ form of fascism [the author encapsulates this unique formulation in the shorthand: Fa-Ri-Si 法日斯, or ‘Legalistic-Fascist-Stalinism’].”

Here an explicit connection is made between government censorship and the virus outbreak. Monitoring of online communication is said to prevent the people from warning each other of danger and to take precautions.

The first announcement of the outbreak was December 30th, 4 days after doctor Zhang Jixian in Wuhan escalated the puzzling results of her CT scans of new patients to the central government health authority. [14] Attached below is the response timeline from the New England Journal of Medicine. [15]

Event Date Description
2019-12-29 Pneumonia cases linked to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.
2019-12-30 Case-finding activated.
2019-12-31 Outbreak announced by WHC; NHC and China CDC involved in investigation and response.
2020-01-01 Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market closed.
2020-01-03 Emergency monitoring, case investigation, close contact management, and market investigation initiated, technical protocols for Wuhan released; NHC notified WHO and relevant countries and regions; gene sequencing completed by China CDC.
2020-01-06 China CDC Level 2 emergency response activated.
2020-01-08 A novel coronavirus was officially announced as the causative pathogen of the outbreak by China CDC.
2020-01-10 China CDC publicly shared the gene sequence of the novel coronavirus; completed PCR diagnostic reagent development and testing.
2020-01-11 PCR diagnostic reagents provided to Wuhan.
2020-01-13 First confirmed case from Wuhan reported outside China (in Thailand).
2020-01-15 China CDC emergency response level upgraded to Level 1 (the highest level); national technical protocols for 2019-nCoV released by NHC.
2020-01-16 Strict exit screening measures activated in Wuhan, people with body temperature ≥37.3° were restricted from leaving.
2020-01-19 First confirmed case reported in another province in China (in a person who had traveled from Wuhan); China CDC issues test reagent to all provinces in China.
2020-01-20 NCIP incorporated as a notifiable disease in the infectious Disease Law and Health and Quarantine Law in China.
2020-01-21 Reagent probes and primers shared with the public by China CDC.

Notably, supposed “whistleblower” Li Wenliang told his WeChat groupchat that Wuhan had “7 SARS cases” on the evening of December 30th, after the outbreak was already announced. He also mentioned that the patients were quarantined in the Houhu wing of his hospital (Doctor Li worked in ophthalmology). There are of course patient confidentiality issues here but I’m not certain of the specific PRC laws on this. Certainly the families of the patients wouldn’t appreciate an eye doctor telling everyone where their sick relatives are housed, however.

Doctor Li is being held up as an example of a whistleblower and presumably an example of the civic early warning system Xu describes. But Dr. Li’s revelation came after the official announcement and his assessment was also wrong — the outbreak was not SARS.

Is it preferable to have thousands of voices spreading their own version of events on social media? How would that have helped the early response if everyone was being told something different? Officials were quick to rule out both SARS and MERS as the virus in question, but their job would have been more difficult if social media had spread that it was SARS already.

In an emergency, preventing the spread of false information is important to prevent panic. Containment does not work if everyone fears for their lives and are pushed to desperate measures, including breaking quarantine. Xu may think the Chinese system handicapped the response, but I do not think a country with an acute problem with anti-vaccine fake news like the United States is in a better position to coordinate a massive response to a new viral epidemic.

Lastly, Xu’s description of China as “Legalistic-Fascist-Stalinism” is pure word salad. It betrays an extremely poor understanding of the Legalist scholars such as Master Han Fei or Master Xun and the history of the Soviet Union. Perhaps the term has more cachet with Westerners who are also unfamiliar and happily accept Xu’s formulations as congruent with their own orientalist preconceptions.

6. A New Era That Has Shut Down Reform

“In China today, the authorities have blocked off any possible passage to imaginable change and we must seriously doubt whether any form of peaceful transition might even be conceivable.”

This is a short section that does not elucidate exactly what kind of reform Xu wants. It is left deliberately ambiguous to keep the reader in the dark, with only a vague notion that “reforms are generally good.” But China under Xi has been constantly changing. Market liberalizations that were extremely unpopular in the past have been reined in. Wages have continued to rise as worker protections continue to grow. The state has taken a more active role in managing the banks, quietly resolving China’s previous shadow banking crisis. (Remember when that was going to collapse China? you don’t hear about it very often today, do you?) [16]

It’s clear the “reforms” Xu wants are more in line with the Chicago Boys’ “shock therapy” or the mass privatizations in the former USSR. After all, he specifically refers to the situation of long-term private property rights in China and claims there is “widespread panic”! What better way to reassure investors and capitalists than another massive round of privatization and market liberalization?

Again Xu reveals himself to be completely out of touch with the average citizen. The most unpopular reforms in the last four decades in China were the market reforms done to get into the World Trade Organization. [17] Then Premier Zhu Rongji was lambasted by the public on his return from the negotiations. The clamor for bourgeois elections, American-style, on the other hand, is purely a well-off, likely Western-educated, Chinese urbanite fixation.

7. A New Era of Isolation

“I believe that the only way for China to end its global and historical isolation and become a meaningful participant in the global system, as well as flourish on the path of national survival and prosperity, is to pursue a politics that embraces constitutional democracy and fosters a true people’s republic. When that time comes, and in accord with the flow of events, it is not unimaginable that China might even be worthy of joining the G7, which would in turn become the Group of Eight or G8.”

I’m honestly unsure if Xu entered a time warp to 1525 and personally witnessed the Ming court burning the treasure ships. In this globalized era, is China “isolated” in any meaningful sense of the term? China is the top trade partner for 128 of the world’s 190 countries. [18]

Beyond trade, as the US retreats from multinational institutions such as the United Nations, China has stepped up and taken a leadership role. Recall the recent October 2019 elections for the top post at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization — the Chinese candidate, Qu Dongyu absolutely trounced the US favored candidate. [19] China has set up multiple multinational partnerships and organizations of its own as well, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

In an even more direct refutation of Xu’s wild claims, in recent weeks both the United Kingdom and the European Union rejected US demands to ban Huawei from their future 5G networks, a clear sign of growing Chinese-European relations as well as US isolation from its traditional allies. [20]

So what’s Xu’s deal here? He gives away the game with his rather pathetic hope that “one day China may be worthy of joining the G7”! Putting aside the per capita GDP criteria that presently excludes China, it’s clear what Xu really wants is to be part of that Western, First World, “free and democratic” club.

Never mind the massive, nationwide protests ongoing in France, [21] or the rise of Salvini’s fascist party in Italy, [22] or the Canadian government’s ongoing repression against the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, [23] Xu doesn’t care. It’s about the aesthetics of “freedom” for Xu and not a genuine concern for the welfare of the people, or else he would’ve framed his wishes in those terms instead of hoping to join the Cool Countries Club.

8. A New Era in Which to Seek Freedom from Fear

“Now, as a result of this Great Virus, the People are enraged and they’ve had enough. They have witnessed how the facts were hidden and how the health and safety of the common people was ignored by an unfeeling bureaucracy.

Mass sentiment can be summed up in the line [made famous in Bei Dao’s 1976 poem]: I — DO — NOT — BELIEVE! And they won’t put up with it any more.”

This section represents what Xu hopes is happening, but once again he reveals how out of touch he is with his average countryman. While there certainly are people angry and upset with the government response (particularly in the epicenter, Hubei), the general sentiment across the country compares the response to 2003’s SARS and the judgment is that the response has been much better this time around.

The response to the coronavirus is constantly being compared to its predecessor, the 2003 SARS outbreak. All the people I talked to agreed that the government completely bungled the response to SARS, with some outright condemning the government for its coverup and prolonged silence. By comparison, everyone agreed that the response to this virus has been much better. Maggie, from Jiangsu, is encouraged by the proactive measures the government has taken and is surprised by the candor in response to this disease. I think her general outlook represents the majority of the responses that I got. Most people feel the government is handling this well. [24]

If you put two and two together here, you may wonder why the pre-Xi, competent, technocratic bureaucracy of 2003 that Xu had so many good things to say about couldn’t measure up to Xi’s yes-men bureaucracy in 2020. Didn’t Xi gut the infrastructure of the party-state and force out all the competent women and men? As new cases continue to decline, particularly outside of Hubei, the public mood continues to grow more optimistic, and even the Western media is talking about a peak point soon. Unfortunately for Xu, his moment of fury and anger may have already passed, leaving him holding the bag like a Narodnik wondering why the people haven’t risen up yet. [25]

9. A New Era in Which the Clock Is Ticking

“To put it another way, a breakthrough originating from the periphery may augur once more [as it did in the 1890s, the 1910s, the 1940s and again in the 1980s] a moment that favors a push towards meaningful constitutional and legal rule in China. We may well be at just such a juncture; even as the faint light of a new dawn is promised on the horizon, we nonetheless remain in the gloaming — we are no longer lost in the pitch dark of night, yet still the roseate promise of a new day eludes us. Still that bastion of power holds itself together tightly, a crumbling edifice reluctant as ever to acquiesce to the popular will. But, look there, the draw bridge that leads a way out [that is, the promise offered by events in Hong Kong and Taiwan] has been lowered just so far. Is this not a time spoken of by prophets — even though many will fail and fall before the dawn light ushers in a new day?”

This final point is really a concession that his previous hope for the people to rise up won’t be happening. Instead, Xu turns to the “periphery” (meaning Hong Kong and Taiwan) for inspiration, and hopes that events in those places can ignite revolutionary change in China.

It’s clear Xu is referring to the Hong Kong protests that have rocked the city since the summer of 2019, but it’s also a curious thing to point to given that that same city is in the throes of some of the worst xenophobia it’s ever seen in response to the viral outbreak.

The protests were already wildly unpopular in the mainland, particularly after numerous incidents of mainlanders being attacked or beaten in HK, including a street cleaner killed with a brick. Subsequent events of restaurants refusing to serve Mandarin speakers have hardly helped Hong Kong’s reputation either. In any case, the likelihood of Hong Kong inspiring anyone on the mainland is marginal.

As for Taiwan, the re-election of Tsai Ing-wen was 1) expected since the fall of 2019 and 2) a non-event in cross-strait relations. Tsai has shown herself to be a generally pragmatic operator within the context of the Democratic Progressive Party, and is unlikely to drive any major changes in the cross strait detente during the rest of the term.


“Faced with the crisis of the coronavirus, confronting this disordered world, I join my compatriots — the 1.4 billion men and women, brothers and sisters of China, the countless multitudes who have no way of fleeing this land — and I call on them: rage against this injustice; let your lives burn with a flame of decency; break through the stultifying darkness and welcome the dawn.”

The last section begins with a bit of a pity party that Xu throws for himself, talking about his demotion and Tsinghua’s internal investigation. You’d think that a “Legalist-Stalinist-Fascist” state would be a bit harsher with a dissident like Xu, but perhaps his arrest warrant is lost somewhere in Xi’s yes-man bureaucracy.

This is transparent self-promotion by Xu, who’s a savvy man deep down. I can guarantee you that most Westerners cannot name a single Chinese law professor, but because of his articles and newfound “dissident” status, plenty of Westerners (particularly among the China watcher crowd) have heard of Xu Zhangrun, professor of Law at Tsinghua University. So, congratulations are in order! You made it! Perhaps he’ll get a nice Chai Ling style retirement here one day. [26]

Seemingly lacking a Chinese poet to quote, Xu ends with that overused Dylan Thomas poem, imploring his fellow countrymen to “rage against the dying of the light,” and then re-paraphrases the same lines to ask them to “rage against this injustice,” noting that he’s “join(ing) with 1.4 billion men and women” in doing so.

The level of presumption here really is something else — reminiscent of Juan Guaido’s recent “triumphant” return to Venezuela.

In any case Xu’s article has been out there for a week plus now — if the fury of the nation is truly at a boiling point, it won’t be long before Xu is vindicated and I’m discredited. Anyone care to take bets?

On a final note, instead of trying to self-promote or bloviate like Xu is in response to a genuine epidemic and crisis that is impacting hundreds of thousands of lives, please consider donating to a fundraiser run by alumni of Wuhan University, raising supplies for Wuhan and Hubei. [27] It’s during this time of crisis that everyone reveals their true character, from nation states to politicians all the way down to disgraced professors. People will remember the incredible support from countries such as Japan, and the conspiracy theories spread by US Senators — and they’ll also remember the disgraced professors trying to build their dissident brand in a time of crisis.

I have every confidence in the Chinese people’s ability to overcome this crisis, and I have the same amount of confidence that Xu, by and large, won’t be taken seriously by his compatriots.

  1. Xu Zhangrun, 2020. Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear. China File. [web] 

  2. Xu Zhangrun, 2018. Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes — A Beijing Jeremiad. China Heritage. [web] 

  3. Tedros Adhanom, 2020-02-03. Report of the Director-General, 146th Meeting of the Executive Board. World Health Organization. [web] 

  4. Communist Party of China, 2020-02-03. Study and Strengthen the Prevention and Control of Pneumonia Caused by the New Coronavirus Infection. XinhuaNet. [web] 

  5. 2019-03-11. Disillusioned Bureaucrats Are Fleeing China’s Ministries. Bloomberg News. [web] 

  6. C. Textor, 2021-12-19. Consumer Confidence Index in China from October 2016 to October 2021. Statista. [web] 

  7. Sui-Lee Wee, 2016-12-26. China Reassures Homeowners Worried About Land Rights. New York Times. [web] 

  8. Cao Yin, 2017-10-31. Land leases to be extended to protect farmers’ rights. ChinaDaily. [web] 

  9. Julia Lovell, 2019. Maoism: A Global History. [web] 

  10. Patrick Frater, 2019-12-24. China’s Box Office Went Its Own Way in 2019, to Hollywood’s Detriment. Variety. [web] 

  11. The Leader (2021). Bilibili/Wawayu Animation, freely available on YouTube with English subtitles. [web] 

  12. Cheng Li, 2012-11-05. The Powerful Factions Among China’s Rulers. Brookings. [web] 

  13. Daniel Lucey & Annie Sparrow, 2020-01-04. China Deserves Some Credit for Its Handling of the Wuhan Pneumonia. Foreign Policy. [web] 

  14. Dennis Normile, 2020-01-03. Novel human virus? Pneumonia cases linked to seafood market in China stir concern. Science. [web] 

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