By Tsugumasa Uchihata
The global spread of infection with the new type of pneumonia has revealed the negative effects of the heavy-handed rule of the Chinese government led by Xi Jinping. It is obvious that obedience to Xi, the concealment of information, and the controls on the freedom of speech and the press made things worse. Xi’s governance of the country also became a significant issue in the editorials on the new type of pneumonia.
The Chinese leader’s planned visit to Japan as a state guest which was originally scheduled for early April is expected to be postponed. The Sankei Shimbun insisted in its editorial dated Feb. 19: “(Xi’s) visit to Japan should be canceled. Japan does not have time to engage in intense talks to prepare for the visit because now is the time for the country to make an all-out effort to prepare for a domestic epidemic. Xi may be hoping to restore his power to unify the nation through diplomacy, but he should focus on preventing the infection from spreading.”
China decided to postpone the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress scheduled for March 5. Sankei wrote, “This is an extraordinary situation resulting from a failure of the Xi Jinping-led leadership to respond appropriately to the virus outbreak in its initial stages.” It also pointed out, “Frustration with the poor handling of the new type of pneumonia by the Xi leadership and the central and regional governments is growing.” The failed initial response arises from the high-handed rule of the Xi government. The Mainichi Shimbun criticized, “China missed an opportunity to contain the infection at an early stage because of its excessive information control and a delay in taking action caused by its ostrichism.”
What is problematic is that the Xi government does not change its attitude but is tightening controls on freedom of speech. On Feb. 19, China announced that it had revoked the press credentials of three Beijing-based reporters of The Wall Street Journal, a major American newspaper. It was a de facto deportation, causing an outcry from Sankei, the Asahi Shimbun, and the Yomiuri Shimbun. What the Chinese government thought problematic was a column on the new type of pneumonia written by an outside expert. Asahi wrote, “This time, the action is extraordinary because none of the newspaper’s reporters in China had any involvement with the publication of the essay in question.” Yomiuri concluded, “The administration must not be allowed to take foolish measures to amend flaws resulting from its own heavy-handed rule by adopting further high-handed methods.”
There was also a growing call for freedom of speech within China. In response to the death of a Wuhan doctor infected with coronavirus who warned against the pneumonia of unknown cause and was punished by the authorities for “spreading rumors,” Peking University Professor Zhang Qianfan and other experts released an open letter saying, “The suppression of speech caused a man-made disaster.” Sankei wrote: “Under China’s one-party rule, criticism of the Communist Party and the government runs the risk of putting the critic in personal danger. Criticizing the regime by using real names is unusual.” It also insisted, “The Xi government should listen more carefully to the desperate voices of the people who strongly desire freedom of speech and accurate information.” Asahi commented: “The Communist Party regime has long justified its restriction of freedom of speech, arguing that social stability is more important than anything else for the interests of citizens. But there is growing suspicion that this suppression of the freedom of speech has led to the disastrous concealment of information that caused the tragic spread of the infection.”
Finance ministers and central bank governors of the Group of 20 (G20) major economies met in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh from Feb. 22 to 23 and confirmed that they would employ all policy measures to prevent the global economy from stalling. But a Chinese cabinet minister was not present at the meeting. Sankei, Mainichi, Yomiuri, and Nikkei expressed skepticism about this. Sankei made a request, saying: “China should seriously recognize the enormousness of the impact that its economic deterioration will have on the world. It should disclose the reality of stagnant economic activities and clearly indicate countermeasures to prevent them from affecting the world. This is a prerequisite for urging international cooperation.”
It is not too late for Xi to get things under control on the basis of international cooperation by honestly acknowledging mistakes, lifting controls on the freedom of speech and the press, and disclosing necessary information in and outside the country. That is the responsibility of the leader of a superpower.