Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to deliver a significant economic address on Wednesday in Shenzhen. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Dear Chairman Xi, It’s Time for You to Go.

In an open letter, the influential academic Xu Zhiyong uttered those damning words. The founder of the New Citizens Movement, a group advocating civil rights and China’s peaceful transition to constitutional rule, defied the risk of retribution from the ruling Communist Party by calling on President Xi Jinping to step down.

Politically, the Covid-19 epidemic has been a public relations nightmare for General-Secretary Xi and the inner circle of the Party.

Accusations of incompetence have been leveled against the administration for its early response to the crisis, as well as claims of a “cover-up” by officials in Wuhan. The death rate in the city has also been questioned by media outlets as far too low with crematoriums working “around the clock.”

Now Xu, a legal scholar who holds a doctorate from the prestigious Tsinghua University, has dared to voice growing concerns that have emerged on social media chatrooms across the world’s second-largest economy.

“Your incompetence is on display in times of crisis … Let me illustrate my point. Your prevarication led to an unconfined and explosive spread of what [became] a nationwide epidemic,” Xu said, referring to Xi, the most powerful leader in China since Mao Zedong.

“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?” he added in his letter entitled Dear Chairman Xi, It’s Time for You to Go, which was translated by Geremie R Barme for ChinaFile.

Yet this is not the first time that Xu has singled out Xi for criticism. Last month, he accused the “Chairman of Everything” of being “clueless” and was reportedly arrested.

His comments came after China was forced to shut down factories, businesses and schools in January to curb the spread of the coronavirus following the Lunar New Year holiday period

At the last count, the official death toll in the country was 3,119 with 80,735 people infected. Still, in the past 10 days, new cases have significantly dropped, statistics from the central government showed.

Overseas, the numbers are starting to rise rapidly. Deaths have reached 709 with nearly 30,000 people infected after the virus went global and spread to more than 80 nations.

Economically, business activity has flatlined in the PRC with the service sector and manufacturing plunging to record PMI lows. Exports and imports also tanked in January.

“Brand ‘People’s Republic of China’ is wobbling, as if the massive picture of Mao in Tiananmen Square was swaying with an earthquake tremor. But it can only actually fall if pushed from inside,” Rowan Callick, of Griffith University’s Asia Institute in the Australian state of Queensland, said.

“The handling of the coronavirus epidemic is undoubtedly sapping confidence in the Communist Party and its formerly all-conquering General-Secretary, Xi Jinping. Any country or ruling party would struggle if faced with a similarly massive challenge,” he wrote in a commentary for Project Syndicate, an academic website.

“But the Party and its leader shoulder especially great ambitions of entering a ‘new era’ created by Xi to ‘realize the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation’ … The big question now is how this renovated Party structure is holding up against the appalling coronavirus epidemic?” Callick added.

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In a move to change the narrative, Xi and his close cabinet of cadres have marshaled the full powers of the state and the government-owned media.

They have put forward a different scenario of “competence” in dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak and repeatedly republished words of “praise” from the World Health Organisation.

At the same time, they have tried to silence outspoken critics such as Xu Zhangrun, a respected professor of law at Tsinghua University in Beijing

After publishing an online critique of Xi entitled Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear, he was placed under house arrest by the security forces and barred from using the internet, media reports claimed.

As Callick said:

“It would seem logical that since Xi claims all the glory for China’s economic rise and global influence, he would bear the responsibility for disasters, as well. This would fit with the old imperial danger of losing the ‘mandate of heaven’ – the notion that only a righteous ruler would retain the approval of the gods.

“Public anger and distrust of the authorities still burns. With hundreds of millions still staying largely at home, staring at smartphones, such sentiments seep out everywhere. Today, however, the extent of China’s online and offline controls almost rule out change – or even the threat – coming from the ‘masses.’

“They are not trusted to participate in their own governance. They are given no scope to organize. Since seizing power in 1949, the Party has drawn a line under further revolutions.”

Unless, of course, that “revolution” involves expanding Beijing’s role in the country’s day-to-day life as Xi and the CCP tighten their grip on power.

Even though China’s economic heartbeat is faint now, once it eventually revives and the memories of suffering start to fade, the Party will still stride the political stage, according to Jude Blanchette, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based thank tank.

“It’s very unlikely that there’s any significant or overt political challenge to Xi Jinping. This is a leader who has consolidated extraordinary amounts of power … his value proposition is that he will be able to fix China’s governance system to be able to deal with Black Swan events like the one we’re dealing with now and other challenges China is facing,” he said. 

“I think where we should be spending most of our time looking is what will the new shape of the Party-state look like in response to, or as a result of, its actions to deal with the coronavirus,” Blanchette told the South China Morning Post.

Yet, perhaps, lawyer Xu touched a raw nerve in his open letter when he voiced what many consider the opinions of the silent majority “staring at their smartphones”:

“Real political leaders have true vision. [But] what have you got? The ‘Chinese Dream?’ Come on: That’s plagiarized from the Americans; even so, you [Xi] still can’t really explain what it means.”

Predicting the president’s long-term future and country’s road ahead will be just as opaque.