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  • Taiwan’s COVID-19 Success Highlights Global Risks of Diplomatic Isolation

  • Tycoon Ren Zhiqiang Under Investigation After Attack on Epidemic Handling

  • Lawyer Wang Quanzhang Moved from Prison into New Isolation


Photo: Untitled (Shanghai), by Hsiuan Boyen

Untitled (Shanghai), by Hsiuan Boyen (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Taiwan’s COVID-19 Success Highlights Global Risks of Diplomatic Isolation

As countries across the globe continue struggling to flatten their domestic epidemic curves, Beijing has sought to cast itself as a victor against COVID-19, and hence a natural leader in global pandemic efforts–a hard sell to many, as Beijing’s official COVID-19 statistics have been questioned by Chinese citizens and international experts, and China has reportedly been profiteering off of faulty testing and protective gear. Meanwhile, the continuing successes in Taiwan’s fight against the virus have made the island nation a model for effective response. While Taiwan’s forced isolation from the world order has somewhat obscured its successes, the situation has provided Taipei with an opportunity to assert itself on the global stage.

Despite Taiwan being just over 100 miles from the mainland and among the first countries to report cases, Taiwanese health authorities have so far confirmed only 380 cases of COVID-19 and five related deaths. While Taiwan’s physical proximity to China may suggest a relatively high risk of mass infection, its political relationship with and long history facing hostility from the mainland help to explain its successful response. As a de facto sovereign democracy with no seat at the United Nations, under near-constant military threat, and with dwindling formal diplomatic partners, Taiwan is well acquainted with and experienced in countering CCP propaganda and disinformation. Additionally, hard-learned lessons from the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic went a long way in guiding Taipei’s domestic response measures, as James Griffiths reports for CNN:

During the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003, Taiwan was among the worst-hit territories, along with Hong Kong and southern China. More than 150,000 people were quarantined on the island — 180 kilometers (110 miles) off China’s southeastern coast — and 181 people died.

While SARS now pales in comparison to the current crisis, it sent shockwaves through much of Asia and cast a long shadow over how people responded to future outbreaks. This helped many parts of the region react faster to the current coronavirus outbreak and take the danger more seriously than in other parts of the world, both at a governmental and societal level, with border controls and the wearing of face masks quickly becoming routine as early as January in many areas.

Taiwan has a world-class health care system, with universal coverage. As news of the coronavirus began to emerge from Wuhan in the run up to the Lunar New Year, officials at Taiwan’s National Health Command Center (NHCC) — set up in the wake of SARS — moved quickly to respond to the potential threat, according to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). […] [Source]

See also an Atlantic Council blogpost by Chang-Ching Tu, outlining four clear lessons to take away from Taiwan’s COVID-19 experience.

Despite its obvious upper-hand in preparation for the current pandemic, Taiwan’s uncertain geopolitical status may have largely prevented its successful experience from effectively guiding ongoing global public health efforts. Taiwan and the World Health Organization–which in 2017 revoked Taiwan’s short-lived observer status at the World Health Assembly–are currently involved in a spat over the WHO’s unwillingness to work with Taipei, the organization’s parallel softness on Beijing, and the global implications of those political moves.

On first news of a mysterious illness in Wuhan last year–as health workers were being penalized by Wuhan authorities for spreading “rumors” about a deadly new virus–Taipei began health inspections on all flights coming from Wuhan. When Chinese and WHO officials offered statements urging calm and continued trade and travel, Taipei–ever wary of official data from Beijing–sent health experts to Wuhan who concluded that the novel coronavirus could be far more hazardous. They shared their findings with the WHO on December 31, but despite evidence the WHO continues to deny receipt. When the WHO parroted China’s claims in mid-January that the virus didn’t appear to spread by human-to-human transmission, Taipei already had sent them data suggesting the opposite.

Following a highly awkward interview last month with Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK in which a WHO official repeatedly dodged a general question about Taiwan’s COVID-19 successes, once with an apparently intentional closing of the video call, the WHO insisted that it does work with Taiwanese health authorities. Taipei replied by highlighting the “shared aspiration of the people of Taiwan to participate in the WHO,” the WHO’s running exclusion of Taiwan as an observer, and the fact that the WHO doesn’t share information provided by Taiwan with member states.

Last week, the BBC reported further on the awkward call between RTHK journalist Yvonne Tong and WHO Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward, when the latter repeatedly refused to acknowledge a question about Taiwan. (The Hong Kong government has since publicly reprimanded Tong and RTHK for “breaching the One-China principle.”) The report uses Aylward’s reaction as a representation of Taipei’s troubled relationship with the WHO:

Aylward’s reaction was widely seen as indicative of the awkward relationship the WHO has with Taiwan, which is not allowed to be a member state.

[…] The exclusion, coupled with the WHO’s repeated praise of China’s response to the outbreak – which public health experts have criticised – has led some to accuse the organisation of political bias towards China, a major contributor to the organisation.

[…]”We hope through the test of this epidemic, the WHO can recognise clearly that epidemics do not have national borders, no one place should be left out because any place that is left out could become a loophole… any place’s strength shouldn’t be neglected so that it can make contributions to the world,” said Taiwan’s health minister Chen Shih-chung at a recent press conference.

Taiwan has also pointed out that it learned many lessons from managing its coronavirus outbreak which could be shared with the world. The island has been praised for its swift and decisive handling of its epidemic, which has been relatively controlled and has seen few deaths. [Source]

At The Nation, Wilfred Chan explains how the world pays the price for the WHO’s refusal to work with Taipei, asking “what if the legitimacy in question here were not Taiwan’s–but that of the system that the WHO represents?”

[…] In spite of its decisive response, Taiwan was shut out of the WHO’s emergency meeting on January 22, where representatives from 16 countries—including the PRC, Japan, South Korea, and the United States—opted to delay declaring the coronavirus a global health emergency.

[…] The WHO has never operated free from state interests. Like other international agencies founded under the UN in the wake of World War II, it originated as a tool of the 20th century US-led world order. In 1954, Republican Representative Frances P. Bolton articulated the US interest in the WHO in a speech on the anniversary of the agency’s founding: “In our global struggle against communism, one of our principal endeavors is to keep the free world strong. Disease breeds poverty and poverty breeds further disease. International communism thrives on both.” Health was a means to a geopolitical end.

[… Financial pressure along with Trump administration threats to slash contributions] could explain why the WHO is looking to China. This dynamic is especially apparent within the WHA, which elects the WHO’s director-general every five years. Competition for the post is fierce, and countries with more leverage lobby other countries into forming voting coalitions, in a secretive process that has included accusations of “rampant” bribery. Beijing has proved especially adept at this game […].

[…] The coronavirus pandemic is already a profound tragedy. We can avoid further heartache by ending our reliance on a global health system that sees the world as competing states. Instead, we need to focus on creating bottom-up, transnational mutualism between health workers, researchers, and communities. [Source]

The current WHO director-general, Ethiopian Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, rose to the head of the organization in 2017 with China’s direct support, despite accusations of cover-up scandals and formal opposition back home. At The National Interest last month, Peter Hasson described the history of Tedros’ relationship with China, and compared his regular praise and approval of Beijing’s COVID-19 response with the documented record of opacity, mismanagement, disinformation, and relevant domestic outrage over the last three months:

[…] Tedros’s close relationship with China isn’t new.

He worked closely with China during his time as Ethiopia’s health minister, and China backed Tedros’s 2017 bid for WHO director-general, media outlets noted at the time.

[…] Just months after taking over at the WHO, Tedros tapped former Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe, a notorious human rights violator, to be a UN Goodwill ambassador and only backed down after an international outcry.

“Diplomats said [Mugabe’s] appointment was a political payoff from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — the WHO’s first African director-general — to China, a long-time ally of Mugabe, and the 50 or so African states that helped to secure Tedros’s election earlier this year,” Sunday Times columnist Rebecca Myers wrote in October 2017.

[…] Washington Post columnist Frida Ghitis similarly noted at the time that China “worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help Tedros defeat the United Kingdom candidate for the WHO job, David Nabarro. Tedros’s victory was also a victory for Beijing, whose leader Xi Jinping has made public his goal of flexing China’s muscle in the world.” [Source]

BBC News relays a theory that Tedros’ reluctance to criticize China stems from a benevolent goal, which appears to be failing:

“His strategy is to coax China to transparency and international co-operation rather than criticising the government,” says Lawrence Gostin, Professor of Global Health Law at Georgetown University.

But has that actually worked?

Some WHO watchers have criticised the effusive praise heaped on China for its containment measures.

After his trip to Beijing, Dr Tedros said China had set “a new standard for outbreak control”.

A few days later, he told world leaders meeting at the Munich Security Conference that China’s actions had “bought the world time”.

Such comments sit uneasily with the knowledge that China arrested health workers who first raised the alarm about the outbreak. […] [Source]

An opinion article at The Hill last month argued that both Tedros and Beijing should be held accountable for the pandemic.

This week, Tedros accused Taipei of launching an organized, “racist” campaign against him, a claim Taipei quickly rejected. At The Washington Post. Gerry Shih reports:

The Taiwanese Foreign Ministry said the allegations by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus were groundless and demanded an apology from the United Nations official a day after he told reporters in Geneva that Taiwan has been abetting a campaign of racist slurs and death threats against him for the past three months.

[…] “Taiwan, the Foreign Ministry also, they know the campaign. They didn’t disassociate themselves. They even started criticizing me in the middle of all that insult and slur, but I didn’t care,” Tedros said Wednesday in an uncharacteristic outburst.

The Taiwanese Foreign Ministry said Thursday it “in no way encouraged” any personal attacks and condemned “any form of discrimination.”

But it also said the WHO has faced legitimate criticism and anger over its conduct in the past three months. [Source]

State-affiliated tabloid Global Times has accused “Taiwan separatists” of politicizing the pandemic to “poison cross-strait ties.” At New Bloom, Brian Hioe recalls Tedros’ earlier criticism of Taipei, and notes that the situation has become a soft power win for Taiwan and the case for its formal inclusion in the global order:

According to Tedros, Taiwan was politicizing the coronavirus pandemic to attack the WHO when the world needs to unite in combating the disease. What has raised eyebrows in particular, however, was Tedros accusing the Taiwanese government of “racism” against Africans in this purported campaign against him.

[…] Tedros also lashed out at Taiwan last month, accusing Taiwan of being behind online criticism of his leadership of the WHO through use of a “cyber-army.”This was specifically in the context of an online petition on that called for his replacement as director-general of the WHO. At press time, the petition currently has around 754,000 signatures. Nevertheless, given international praise of Taiwan, at other points the WHO has claimed that it has worked with Taiwan in efforts to fight COVID-19. Such claims have been denied by the Taiwanese government.

To this extent, the Taiwanese government has sought to use the COVID-19 outbreak as an opportunity to highlight Taiwan’s exclusion from international organizations such as the WHO. That is, the Taiwanese government has sought to highlight Taiwan’s potential contributions to international health, sending millions of medical masks internationally as a form of diplomatic soft power, in addition to other supplies.

[…] Tedros’ accusation that it is the Taiwanese government that is attempting to unduly politicize the issue of global health would seem to be a form of victim-blaming. This accusation would be a means of attempting to redirect accusations that have been made against China toward Taiwan, in the hopes that this will stick. [Source]

At The Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby puts the “medical outrage” of excluding Taiwan from the WHO into the context of a wider “political outrage”: that most of the globalized world has decided to follow Beijing’s “One China” line. Jacoby notes that the pandemic has fueled long-running concerns about China’s emerging influence over the international order:

The claim that Taiwan is part of China is ridiculous on its face. Yet so aggressive is Beijing in asserting that Taiwan not be treated as a legitimate nation that most of the world’s governments choose not to press the issue. International bodies go along with the “one China” fiction, treating Taiwan and its people with profound disrespect. It’s a shameful situation in the best of times. Amid a global pandemic, it’s reckless.

[…] The WHO has come in for serious criticism of how it has handled the coronavirus threat, in particular for being so deferential to the Chinese government. As Beijing was suppressing information about the outbreak in Wuhan and punishing doctors who tried to raise an alarm, the WHO was ostentatiously praising China for its “openness to sharing information” and downplaying the danger from the virus. By reacting so obsequiously, writes Michael Collins of the Council on Foreign Relations, the organization in effect “laundered China’s image at the expense of the WHO’s credibility.”

[…] This crisis has awakened second thoughts about the world’s relations with China. Its treatment of Taiwan is one thing that cannot continue. There is no excuse for denying one of Asia’s freest and most advanced nations a seat at the table in every global forum.

The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced Taiwan’s importance as a responsible partner in protecting global health, even as it has intensified skepticism of China’s competence and integrity. […][Source]

In a Council on Foreign Relations brief, Taiwanese lawyer Yu-Jie Chen and NYU law professor Jerome Cohen explain why Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO is of special concern during a pandemic:

Taiwan is an important stakeholder and a valuable partner in fighting this unprecedented crisis. Taiwan’s government is donating masks to countries in need and sharing its experience using technology to investigate outbreaks. It is also working with U.S. experts to develop more rapid diagnostic test kits and vaccines.

Despite Taiwan’s valuable input, the WHO continues to shun it. For example, when asked by a journalist about Taiwan’s exclusion and experience dealing with the pandemic during a recent interview, WHO senior advisor Bruce Aylward hung up the call after trying to avoid the questions. After this public relations disaster, the WHO claimed it was closely working with Taiwan experts, which Taiwan’s government refuted. Taiwan has continually shared coronavirus data with the WHO, but the WHO has never released this information to its members. Additionally, in a February coronavirus status report, the WHO misreported the number of cases in Taiwan based on information provided by China. It also continues to deceptively list Taiwan’s case numbers under China’s. Taiwan was snubbed by the WHO yet again when it was not invited to the organization’s emergency meetings in January. After repeated requests, in February, the WHO finally allowed two Taiwanese experts to attend an online forum. Such ludicrous limitations have rightly been scoffed at by many governments and critics.

The WHO’s exclusion of Taiwan from the global fight against the pandemic is a reckless dereliction of duty. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, whose election was due in large part to China’s support, has been widely criticized for actions that appeared to help China downplay the outbreak, delaying the international response as a result. Taiwan’s exclusion is an example of how the world’s health body puts politics before public health. Governments and concerned citizens must demand that the WHO fulfill its obligation—to represent the world’s health interests, not China’s—and hold the WHO accountable when it fails.

At NBC News, Cindy Sui relays analysts’ opinions that Taiwan’s stark success against the virus despite its lack of WHO inclusion and support significantly bolsters Taipei’s case for WHO membership:

Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said he believes that Taiwan has done an “exceptional job” responding to the crisis and that if it had been a member of the WHO, “we would have learned at least two weeks earlier of the threat we were facing.”

“In addition, we would have learned at least six weeks earlier that the outbreak could be successfully suppressed and how to do so,” he said in an email. “The experience of the last three months shows that exclusion of Taiwan from the WHO decreases the effectiveness of the WHO and increases risks to the world.” [Source]

At AP, Matthew Lee reports that the Trump administration is seizing the opportunity to promote Taiwan’s status on the global stage:

The administration is pressing for Taiwan’s inclusion as a separate entity in international organizations like the World Health Organization and International Civil Aviation Organization, both of which have significant roles in anti-virus efforts. But, it is more broadly pushing back against Beijing’s recent diplomatic victories over Taipei that have included several small countries abandoning diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in favor of China.

[…] At the March 31 conference, the participants “discussed ongoing efforts to reinstate Taiwan’s observer status at the World Health Assembly, as well as other avenues for closer coordination between Taiwan and the World Health Organization,” the State Department said.

“Countries around the world can benefit from better understanding the ‘Taiwan Model’, as well as the generous contributions and impressive expertise Taiwan — a vibrant democracy and force for good — brings to the global community,” it said.

The “Taiwan Model” refers to the early strict steps the island took to stem the spread of the virus, which as of late last week had reported only 329 confirmed cases and five deaths despite its close proximity to mainland China. In addition, Taiwan has announced plans to donate 7 million protective masks to European countries and another 2 million to the United States. […] [Source]

On March 19, Taiwan closed its border to international visitors, fearing a second wave of COVID-19 after a “sharp increase” (of ten new cases). At Foreign Policy, Nick Aspinwall reports that, despite geopolitical obstacles and ongoing domestic relief efforts, Taiwan is doing its part to export its success story:

But it is not too late for Taiwan to help. Last month, President Tsai Ing-wen said on Twitter that Taiwan is “willing to contribute our capabilities to better protect human health around the world.” On April 1, Taiwan announced it would donate 10 million masks to the United States, 11 European countries, and its diplomatic allies. Taiwan’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that a second batch of six million masks would be donated to countries in Asia, Europe and the Americas.

“Taiwan can, using our resources, help these countries,” said Wang Ting-yu, a legislator with Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party.

[…] Wang, who sits on the legislature’s foreign affairs committee, is one of Taiwan’s most vocal adopters of the Twitter hashtag #TaiwanCanHelp. Originally a rallying cry to allow Taiwan to participate in international organizations (including WHO) that stubbornly exclude it at the behest of Beijing, the phrase is now often attached to stories of Taiwan’s success in combating the coronavirus. And while Taiwan is committed to protecting its own population first—experts fear cases could spike again due to the large number of residents returning to Taiwan in the past month—it is striving to provide assistance.

[…] Taiwan can also assist other nations with logistics and operations, allocation of production and resources, and the use of data for tracking potentially infected individuals and contact tracing to prevent further spread, said the Stanford Health Policy researcher C. Jason Wang, who co-wrote a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The article contains a list of 124 actions Taiwan took to combat the outbreak that other countries can pull from, including screening at airports and enforcement of mandatory 14-day quarantines. [Source]

For more examples of Taiwanese digital innovation proving to guard its highly embattled democracy, see Carl Miller’s look at the thriving and impactful “civic hacker” movement on the island at WIRED.

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Tycoon Ren Zhiqiang Under Investigation After Attack on Epidemic Handling

Outspoken property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang went missing nearly four weeks ago, soon after the online circulation of an essay attributed to him which sharply attacked the official handling of the COVID-19 epidemic and especially the role of top leader Xi Jinping. This week, Ren was revealed to be under investigation by disciplinary inspectors. From Chun Han Wong at The Wall Street Journal:

In a statement Tuesday, a Beijing district branch of the Communist Party’s disciplinary agency said Mr. Ren was being investigated by party and government inspectors for allegedly committing serious violations of party discipline and the law. Chinese officials have often used this vague phrasing when referring to corruption cases. The statement didn’t give details about the allegations against Mr. Ren.

The announcement marked the first official acknowledgment of Mr. Ren’s case since he disappeared in mid-March, soon after Mr. Xi visited the central city of Wuhan, where the pandemic first erupted, in a trip widely seen by ordinary Chinese as a declaration of initial victory in the country’s fight against the coronavirus.

Mr. Ren, a 69-year-old former chairman of a state-owned property company, couldn’t be reached for comment. His mobile phone has been switched off, and friends said they started realizing that Mr. Ren couldn’t be contacted from around March 12.

Friends and China political observers believe the probe against Mr. Ren was prompted by a critical essay friends say he wrote that appeared to call Mr. Xi a “clown,” while attacking the leader’s domineering style and intolerance for dissent. [Source]

CDT posted translated excerpts from the essay last month, but a full translation has now been published by “You Shu” at The text, which Ren reportedly shared only with a few close associates before one of them distributed it more widely, is so bluntly worded that there was initial skepticism about its authorship, even given Ren’s reputation for outspokenness. In it, he writes that “the explosion of China’s Wuhan coronavirus epidemic completely validated the reality” of his warnings in 2016 that “‘when the media is surnamed ‘Party’…the people are abandoned.'” This earlier protest led to the closure of his Weibo account, which had had over 35 million followers. The “stern investigation and punishment of Ren Zhiqiang’s public voicing of wrong remarks” was later hailed by Beijing disciplinary officials as one of their key achievements for the year.

In the recent essay, Ren targets a speech Xi gave to an online audience of 170,000 officials on February 23. Sharply rejecting the orthodox portrayal of Xi as central to vanquishing the virus, Ren describes him as an emperor in fictitious “new clothes,” and accuses him of taking credit for resolving a crisis of his government’s own making. He praises, by contrast, the handling of the crisis in nearby countries like Singapore, Japan, and South Korea, and attributes progress against the outbreak in Wuhan not to core leadership but to “all different types of social groups and private businesses taking the initiative,” adding that “if there wasn’t all this social support and charitable activity, this government wouldn’t have made it through to today!”

In the whole speech, from start to finish, all I can see are lies being used as loincloth, attempts to cover up the fact that that he himself is not wearing any clothes. When he’s trying to prove that he’s a wise and great leader, it’s clear that he’s already incapable of giving any plausible explanation. The more he blows, the higher the loincloth flutters, the more he lays bare his fear and naked ambition to protect imperial power. Maybe all these slogans and classical aphorisms might boost the morale of lots of people, but smart folk can all see behind these beautiful ornaments, it’s him not taking any responsibility for the outbreak of the virus and the leadership mistakes, in actual fact, it’s preparation to use all the effort and lives of the entire nation to pay for the “victory” of the epidemic fight and paint it as his own heroic victory, it’s preparation to accept the whole country cheering “Ten Thousand Years!” as the result of the war.

China’s ruling party hid the reasons for the original outbreak of the virus, then relied upon state power to quarantine the cities, it cheated the World Health Organization to gain its trust, and it even won the praise of the international community. But having lived through this, the Chinese people are not so easily lied to again. Maybe people who live in countries with freedom of expression don’t know the pain of living in a country without a free media or freedom of expression, but the Chinese people have the pain of knowing that the virus outbreak and everything that came after should never have happened, that it’s all because of a system which strictly bans a free media and freedom of expression. [Source]

At The Washington Post on Wednesday, Adam Taylor looked at efforts from some Chinese news outlets to defy these restrictions in the face of the epidemic

“The truth is that the Chinese Communist Party leadership regards any reporting of the facts as ultimately a threat to the stability of the regime,” said David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project.

[…] The early weeks of China’s outbreak saw a remarkable push by independent journalists. Yuan Zeng, a scholar at the University of Leeds, pointed to a variety of outlets like China Youth Daily, YiMagazine and Sanlian Lifeweek that published investigative reports that scrutinized the official version of events.

[…] Those who track Chinese journalism now think the state has clamped down again. “At this point, most of the critical or investigative reporting on this topic has been silenced,” said Maria Repnikova, a Georgia State University professor, who predicted such a clampdown in early February. [Repnikova commented further on Twitter.]

[…] It is remarkable that China’s independent journalists can operate under such conditions, let alone still publish groundbreaking work. “What’s frustrating is what they could do if they weren’t constrained,” [Sinocism’s Bill] Bishop said. “You can see glimpses of the awesome potential.” [Source]

Taylor focuses closely on the work of Caixin, whose four reporters in Wuhan throughout the city’s eleven-week lockdown recently described the “mix of excitement, fear and journalistic responsibility” they felt during the experience.

Ren’s disappearance and now investigation suggest that China’s government is less receptive than ever to calls for free speech like those circulated after the death of whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang. Authorities have since sought to co-opt Li’s legacy, emphasizing his Party membership and hailing him as a martyr, while eliding his view that “there should be more than one voice in a healthy society.” Gerry Shih focused on this context in his report on news of the investigation at The Washington Post on Tuesday:

In recent weeks, China’s propaganda machinery has gone into overdrive to portray the government’s response to the epidemic as heroic in an effort to recover the party’s public standing, which plummeted in February amid reports that officials had covered up the emerging crisis and detained doctors in Wuhan who released information about the discovery of the novel coronavirus.

Eight years into Xi’s administration, the government’s suppression of free speech and its demand for ideological conformity and exclusively positive media coverage — formally dubbed “spreading positive energy” — have become a source of discontent and private ridicule among some business elite and intellectuals.

On Wednesday, many mourned Ren’s apparent downfall. Li Weidong, the former editor in chief of China Reform magazine, said that silencing Ren was the kind of political logic that exacerbated the viral outbreak in the first place.

“I hope the Chinese Communist Party realizes that such party members who dare to tell the truth are needed in the party,” Li said. “If you shut up the few brave enough to speak the truth, disaster will descend. Are the lessons from Wuhan’s mistakes still not profound enough?” [Source]

Ren has not been alone in attacking Xi over the epidemic: other examples include essays from rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong and suspended Tsinghua professor Xu Zhangrun. But Ren’s position and influence set his critique apart. In his Sinocism newsletter on March 31, Bill Bishop commented that “Ren was part of a group of elite Beijingers who thrived in the previous Era […] and his fate resonates in elite circles I think much more than Tsinghua University’s Xu Zhangrun does.”

The New York Times’ Li Yuan discussed Ren’s unusual status last week in a piece describing his disappearance—together with those of his assistant and his son—as “a blow to the nation’s future”:

Yu Zhengsheng, a former member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, […] wrote that he had first noticed Mr. Ren at a conference in 1998, when the latter attacked a new housing policy.

“As one of the people who proposed the policy, I of course disagreed with him,” Mr. Yu wrote. “But his candid remarks and philosophical argument left a deep impression on me. After the meeting, I told relevant comrades that they shouldn’t be repulsed by his remarks and should study the reasonable parts of his argument.”

Mr. Ren won respect from government officials because they came to believe his criticisms were made in good faith. Dissent, he often told others, is the highest form of patriotism.

“I believe Ren Zhiqiang is 90 percent like us,” wrote Ning Gaoning, a respected executive who has run some of China’s biggest state-run conglomerates, in the introduction for Mr. Ren’s 2013 autobiography. “The other 10 percent of his brain is made up of something different from us.”

[…] “State power in any country is greedy, so it needs to be subject to public supervision,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Otherwise, the power will be abused and everybody will suffer from it.” [Source]

At China Media Project, meanwhile, Qian Gang focused on an example from the opposite end of the Party spectrum to Ren. Qian saw echoes of Cultural Revolution loyalty dances in the sycophancy of Shandong’s provincial Party secretary Liu Jiayi, who has emphasized “loyalty to the Party [and] loyalty to the General Secretary,” and described Xi as “the staunch core, wise leader and great commander.” With authorities generally (though not universally) wary of overly effusive praise that might backfire or cloak criticism, Qian notes, Liu is for now an outlier:

So far, Liu Jiayi is in a league of his own when it comes to dancing the loyalty dance. Since January 2020, the country has focused on fighting the coronavirus. When we search newspapers over the past few months, we find Liu is the only leader in the country openly signalling loyalty to Xi Jinping. Liu’s remarks appeared only in Dazhong Daily, Shandong’s official Party mouthpiece, the newspaper directly under Secretary Liu’s thumb, and a few other local Party papers – though they were included in several online sources (including on the People’s Daily news app, shown below).

These days, there are no signs anywhere else in China’s official Party media of phrases of obeisance such as “loyal to General Secretary Xi” (对习总书记忠诚), “loyal to General Secretary Xi Jinping” (对习近平总书记忠诚), “loyal to the General Secretary” (忠诚于总书记), “treating General Secretary Xi with loyalty” (忠诚于习总书记) and so on.

In this “New Era,” will the loyalty dance become as popular as it was during the Cultural Revolution? As we observe Chinese politics, this is another interesting question to bear in mind, looking for signs of the dance in the ever-shifting discourse of the Party. [Source]

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Lawyer Wang Quanzhang Moved from Prison into New Isolation

Rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang was released from prison in Shandong on Sunday, but is still being kept under closely guarded isolation. Authorities have presented this as a standard measure against the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but Wang’s family and supporters fear that it is a form of "non-release ‘release,’" a tactic used to contain politically disharmonious figures after the end of their formal sentences. The use of disease containment as a pretext for political control was previously suspected in cases like the detention of citizen journalist Chen Qiushi, and was included in a list of recommendations to the government from a private consultancy translated by CDT in early February. Wang was one of hundreds of lawyers and others detained during the 2015 "Black Friday" or "709" crackdown, but while most were soon released and a few key figures were tried and sentenced, Wang was held incommunicado for nearly three and a half years before a closed trial for subversion on December 26, 2018. His sentencing a month later was subject to a reporting ban. After his detention, Wang’s wife Li Wenzu, alongside other detainees’ relatives, emerged as a fierce advocate on his behalf and that of other 709 prisoners.

The Guardian’s Verna Yu reported on Wang’s situation:

His wife, Li Wenzu, fears that the authorities are using the pandemic as an excuse to hold him under de facto house arrest indefinitely. She said Wang has been released from prison but authorities had sent him to his home town, Jinan, in the north-eastern province of Shandong (400km south of Beijing) for quarantine.

Chinese authorities have been using compulsory quarantine as a pretext to detain or restrict the movements of government critics.

“The government is continuing to restrict his personal freedoms and forcing us to be separated,” Li told the Guardian. “This behaviour is shameless, I’m absolutely opposed to this and am very angry.

“I fear the government is using the pandemic as an excuse to detain him. Would it be just 14 days as they say? I can’t trust them. So long as my husband has no freedom, I’ll continue to fight until he comes back.” [Source]

In a message posted to Twitter on Monday, Li gave further details suggesting that the restrictions on Wang are not merely a matter of disease control:

Quanzhang’s phone has been confiscated!

Starting from 7 p.m. today, I wasn’t able to contact Quanzhang by phone, however many times I tried. At 9:16 p.m., Quanzhang finally called me, and anxiously said: "My situation here’s changed. The community head who helped me buy a phone yesterday is going to take it away, because the SIM was registered to her ID card. Some leader found her today, and said that letting me use the phone was for contact with family members only, not for all the other miscellaneous calls that came in. Now she’s revoked permission, and is taking the phone away. I kept telling her that my family would be worried if I suddenly lost contact. In the end, they let me make one call to you. From now on the rule is only one call per day to family."

After he’d hurriedly finished speaking, Quanzhang hung up. When I called back again, the phone had been turned off.

Having heard what he’d said, I was furious!

In the name of "isolation," they’re not letting Quanzhang go out. He has no way to go out and sort out an ID card or buy a phone card. Younger brother was dragged off to the police station while trying to deliver food and a phone, couriers are not allowed to deliver to his door. This is even more lonely than being in prison, now he doesn’t even have anyone to talk to! [Chinese]

South China Morning Post’s Kinling Lo and Mimi Lau further reported on Wang’s new captivity, and on signs of the toll taken by Wang’s treatment in prison.

In a phone interview, Li said Wang appeared to suffer from hearing and short-term memory losses.

“I was trying to get him to install WeChat but it requires a short verification and he couldn’t recall the code every time it was sent to him via text messages,” Li said.

[…] While she successfully had food and a bouquet of flowers delivered to Wang on Sunday afternoon, she said an unnamed cousin of Wang was taken away for questioning by police after being turned away from Wang’s flat.

Wang Qiaoling [wife of fellow rights lawyer Li Heping] said on Twitter that the bouquet of flowers she also ordered did not get to Wang, and the delivery man was taken into police custody.

Amnesty International China researcher Doriane Lau said the fact that authorities even turned away the delivery indicated Wang would likely face continued surveillance even though he had served his jail term.

“We are seeing more signs that the authorities are using the 14-day quarantine period for the coronavirus as a pretext to keep Wang under surveillance,” Lau said, adding that the group would carefully monitor Wang’s situation after two weeks. [Source]

NYU law professor Jerome Cohen anticipated this turn in Wang’s case in a blog post on Saturday:

I’ve used “Non-Release Release” (NRR) to describe the phenomenon of individual rights activists and lawyers in China often being released from prison into other, nominally “free” forms of what amounts to detention, such as de facto house arrest or enforced return and restriction to their native village. But NRR can also be used for large numbers of ordinary people, such as Muslims in the Xinjiang region. Many Uyghurs and other minorities there have reportedly been released from “re-education center” prisons, only to be forced to work in factories in various places.

[…] In the past decade NRR has been customized to suit the Party’s needs for effectively suppressing human rights lawyers on a more individualized basis than a formal system might allow, and also for a longer time than formal criminal or administrative sanctions might seem suitable. To the public, NRR looks better than sentencing a lawyer to life in prison, but it can nevertheless amount to a more discreet form of stifling someone forever. For example, whatever became of the great, courageous lawyer Gao Zhisheng? While repeatedly subjected to the formal criminal punishment system, his resistance generated periodic bad publicity for the Party and government. Since his last “release”, however, which forced him back to his native village, he has disappeared. Do people still remember him? Many wrongly assume he has happily been “reformed”.

Think blind “barefoot lawyer” Chen Guangcheng, who, after four years in prison, was “released” to his rural farmhouse with a couple of hundred thugs guarding him around the clock until his miraculous 2012 escape to the American embassy.

What will Wang Quanzhang’s “release” on April 5 amount to? It might have been more appropriate to release him on April Fool’s Day! [Source]

Others had also warned of a "non-release ‘release,’" including Li herself and the 12 rights groups behind a joint statement calling for real freedom for Wang last week:

To ensure that his treatment after release is in line with Chinese law and international human rights standards, we – the undersigned – strongly urge the Chinese government to:

  1. Respect the wishes and basic rights of Wang Quanzhang and his family, and permit Wang to immediately return to Beijing to reunite with his wife and son;
  2. Respect and ensure the protection of Wang Quanzhang and his family’s personal freedoms, in particular their freedom of movement;
  3. Ensure Wang Quanzhang or his family will not be put under house arrest or constant surveillance;
  4. Protect Wang Quanzhang and his family against any future harassment or persecution;
  5. Guarantee the equal right to education of Wang Quanzhang’s son.

[…] According to Chinese law, as highlighted by Lawyer Jiang Tianyong, an individual released from prison should be sent to their normal residential address as a priority, with “normal residential address” being the location where one has resided for at least one year. Wang lived and worked in Beijing before his arrest, therefore he has the right and should be allowed to return to Beijing.[Source]

Li Wenzu also described her anxiety about the future in an interview with Deutsche Welle’s William Yang, who posted the full, translated text at Medium last week.

I used to be a housewife that merely cared about my own family, and I never really cared about what happened in the outside world until Quanzhang was arrested. Now, I have turned into someone who has a broader view of the world and also knows more truth about what the Chinese government is trying to tell its citizens.

Another important change is that I have learned more about Quanzhang, especially what he does. In the past, I didn’t really know what his job entailed, but after spending the last few years around human rights lawyers and their family members, I learned more about the community as well as what Quanzhang’s life was like.

[…] Quanzhang is a man that deserves so much respect for what he does. I’m very proud of having a husband like Quanzhang, and I think once he is released from jail, I will be able to face many difficulties and challenges with him.

[…] I think the Chinese government sees us as their enemies, so they won’t let us have an easy life. Many human rights lawyers and their families still face persecution even after they have been released from jail, so I’m sure the same will happen to us. If the government continues to oppress us, I will definitely keep protesting. [Source]

All this time,
I’ve been counting the days on my fingers
The days till Quanzhang’s release
The days of his isolation
The days till our reunion

[Image: “The second day of Quanzhang’s isolation”]

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