Chinese President Xi Jinping and residents of Wuhan: The city's inhabitants are not ready to cheer their leader's handling of the crisis they are suffering through. (Nikkei montage; source photos from Xinhua/Kyodo and Reuters)
Yet, despite the sharp reduction in new cases, Wuhan was buzzing for a separate reason.
Citizens were furious over a speech given four days prior by Wang Zhonglin, the city's newly appointed Chinese Communist Party chief.
In a speech to senior local officials, Wang, a loyal ally of the president, called for a "gratitude education campaign," under which Wuhan citizens would be taught to express their thanks to Xi and the party for their efforts in tackling the illness.
Wang was attempting to create a favorable atmosphere and lay the groundwork for Xi's upcoming inspection tour; he did not expect the massive outpouring of anger and frustration toward the proposal.
There were so many critical online posts that censorship authorities did not have enough hands on deck to delete them all. "We are still in the midst of the battle against the deadly virus," some of the voices said. "People are dying every day," said others. "Food prices are continuing to rise," netizens wrote.
Fearing that if he pushed ahead with the gratitude campaign the criticism could be squarely directed at his boss, Wang quickly shelved the plan. Instead, he decided on a safer option, a campaign to express gratitude to Wuhan citizens for their contributions, enduring the hardship of a lockdown that was imposed on Jan. 23.
Wang arrived in Wuhan in February as Xi's choice to replace Ma Guoqiang, who was dismissed for his failed initial response to the coronavirus.
But Wang's excessive loyalty to Xi, symbolized by the ill-planned political campaign, rubbed Wuhan's 11 million citizens the wrong way.
One of the leading critics of the campaign was Wuhan-based author Fang Fang, a 64-year-old whose real name is Wang Fang. "The government should put an end to its arrogance and humbly express gratitude to its master -- the millions of people in Wuhan," she wrote in her widely followed online diary about life in the locked-down metropolis.
Her diary, which is uploaded to Chinese social media on a daily basis, has affected the sleeping habits of many Chinese. Followers stay up late to read her posts before they are deleted by authorities in the early morning. She is said to have a 1 million-strong following.
Sometime late Monday night or early Tuesday morning she uploaded a post saying that if anybody were to take responsibility for the handling of the coronavirus, "the party secretary and the director of the Central Hospital of Wuhan should be the first to go."
That hospital is where whistleblower ophthalmologist Li Wenliang worked. The young doctor, one of the first to raise concern about the mysterious illness, was punished for transmitting the information at the end of last year. He himself later caught the virus and died, becoming a martyr among Chinese citizens.
Fang, like Li, graduated from the prestigious Wuhan University.
Adding to the tragedy, another eye doctor at the hospital died on Sunday, bringing the total number of doctors who have succumbed to the virus there to four. More doctors are said to be in serious condition at the hospital.
Fang angrily urged the hospital executives to atone for their sins by stepping down.
"The battle against the coronavirus will continue without you," she wrote to the secretary and director. "Nobody will be troubled if you're gone."
That she writes so candidly and courageously, in tones similar to editorials in major international newspapers, is remarkable in a country that curtails free speech.
Fang's diary posts are sometimes deleted by censorship authorities due to their frankness. But under the current circumstances, knowing that her venting is representative of the common sentiment, the government is not bold enough to ban her blog outright.
And thus the midnight owls stay up to consume her writing, in the few hours that authorities allow for free speech.
At around the same time as the botched gratitude education campaign, another incident was taking place on a Wuhan street.
Citizens cooped up indoors desperately yelled out at a group of central government leaders walking under a cluster of housing complexes. "It's fake, it's fake, everything is fake," they shouted, referring to the briefing that local officials were presenting to one guest in particular, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan.
Sun, a female member of the powerful Politburo, was being shown around a residential area in Wuhan that had been cleaned up before the visit and made to appear as if plenty of food was being delivered to the residents.
"We are being made to buy expensive foods!" residents shouted from upstairs.
Video of the incident went viral on social media and strangely enough was not fully deleted.
"The video was not deleted because it was rather useful for the central government," one veteran party member said. "By pointing out the lies, Wuhan citizens were appealing directly to the central government about local bureaucrats who were only attempting to save appearances. Seeking help from the central government, relying on its authority, is not bad for Beijing."
As the central government treads carefully, trying to manipulate public opinion while avoiding an outburst of anger, the limits of party propaganda are becoming clear.
A short while earlier, a book touting Chinese leadership's great achievements in fighting the virus was published.
"A Great Power's Battle Against Epidemic" demonstrates the "strategic foresight and outstanding leadership ability" of Xi, state-run China Central Television explained.
But in a matter of days, the book was pulled from bookstores across the land, after it faced a barrage of criticism for praising Xi even as the virus outbreak has yet to be brought under control.
The party is also trying its highhandedness abroad.
In early March, state-run Xinhua News Agency published, with fanfare, a commentary to the effect that "the world should thank China" for its contributions to the fight against the coronavirus. It claimed that China made huge sacrifices through its lockdowns and various measures, buying time for the world to react.
It is flatly wrong. The deadly virus spread around the world precisely because Chinese tourists unknowingly carried it with them, all while the horrifying reality of the epidemic was being kept under wraps in China.
China cannot attempt a gratitude education campaign on an international audience at a time when the U.S. as well as countries in Asia, the Middle East and Europe struggle to contain the crisis, which has killed more than 4,300 people around the world.
All of Italy is on lockdown. In the U.S., the Dow Jones Industrial Average on Monday lost more than 2,000 points, its biggest one-day point fall on record.
Why is Beijing pushing for global gratitude? The answer is simple.
The Chinese leadership is facing a governance crisis. It is not easy to see from the outside. At first glance, it seems that China has passed the peak of the coronavirus epidemic and restored calm. But whether Beijing's response to the crisis can stand the test of time and history remains to be seen.
Xi wants to declare victory in the "people's war" against the virus. For that he needs solid evidence, which partially explains why he went to Wuhan. Global recognition would also boost his cause.
The president has significantly consolidated power, but despite his stature he has not had an easy time achieving undisputed results, achievements that match the weight of the 3,000 lives lost so far in Hubei Province alone.
Walking on the streets of Wuhan, a month and a half after Premier Li Keqiang did, Xi must have felt the pain, suffering and darkness that reside in the hearts of the Wuhan people.
Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He has spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting
Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin (left) and International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Azmin Ali. - AP
PETALING JAYA: The decision by Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin to allow Datuk Seri Azmin Ali to chair Cabinet meetings whenever he is absent may be a sign that he is the most trusted one among the four appointed senior ministers, according to analysts.
This could be an indication that Azmin was the leader with the most potential to succeed Muhyiddin as premier, said Prof Dr Awang Azman Awang Pawi of Universiti Malaya.
“If it’s politically interpreted, Muhyiddin is trying to send a signal to everyone that Azmin is the most trusted leader among the senior ministers.
“He is also seen to have the potential to be the next prime minister, ” he said.
Azmin is the International Trade and Industry Minister. The other senior ministers are Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob (Defence), Datuk Seri Fadillah Yusof (Works) and Dr Mohd Radzi Md Jidin (Education).
In a press conference yesterday, Muhyiddin said Azmin would chair Cabinet meetings in his absence.
However, Awang Azman acknowledged that the political situation was fluid, which meant that anything could happen in the future.
He also said that Muhyiddin’s decision had raised an alarm in Umno that it must secure the prime minister’s position if Perikatan Nasional wins in the 15th General Election, as Umno has the most seats in Perikatan.
Awang Azman believed that it was a matter of time before Muhyiddin would reconcile with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, as he pointed out the Langkawi MP had recently opened fire at Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s ambitions of being the next premier.
Dr Oh Ei Sun, adjunct senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, believed that Muhyiddin’s intentions was to prevent a repeat of incidents of deputy prime ministers becoming emboldened in wanting to unseat the No. 1.
As an example, Oh pointed out that even Muhyiddin, during in his tenure as deputy prime minister under the Barisan Nasional administration , had rebelled against former premier Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
Universiti Utara Malaysia’s School of International Studies Prof Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani said a reconciliation was possible between Dr Mahathir and Muhyiddin as “politics is the art of the possible”.
“It is possible as long as they can compromise on something, ” he said.
(Muhyiddin had spoken about having written a letter seeking reconciliation with Dr Mahathir.)
Other political analysts played down Muhyiddin’s decision to allow Azmin to chair Cabinet meetings in his absence.
Prof Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, who heads the Institute of Ethnic Studies at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said there could be a simple reason why Muhyiddin made such a decision.
“Can’t read too much into every twist and turn, ” he said.
KUALA LUMPUR, March 12 — PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim did not have the support of the Malay community as they viewed him as a liberal, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad asserted.
The former prime minister told Sinar Harian that this has been the case since the time Anwar was still an Umno leader, saying the Malays feared liberalism would lead to an erosion of their rights and privileges.
“If we look back, when he left Umno while I was still the prime minister, he tried to form a party to oppose me.
“Before that, Ku Li also left the party to form Semangat 46. But that was a Malay party,” Dr Mahathir said, referring to Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.
“When Anwar left, he formed a liberal party. He wanted the support of DAP so he invited DAP in, invited PAS in. His philosophy is liberal.”
Dr Mahathir did not elaborate on the incongruity of lumping both DAP and PAS as liberals.
He went on to disclose his personal views about Anwar, who had been his anointed successor while the former was still the prime minister.
The problematic power transition between the two was a major element in the political crisis that eventually brought down the Pakatan Harapan administration and allowed Perikatan Nasional to stroll into power.
“I have issues with Anwar. I admit it. When I was still the Umno president, Anwar was dropped and sentenced to imprisonment.
“When we wanted to fight and bring down Najib, I thought between Najib and Anwar, Najib was the more dangerous.
“So I was willing to refer back to Anwar; I was even willing to work with DAP. If not, we would not have defeated Barisan Nasional,” he said in the interview.
These revelations will cast added doubt on Dr Mahathir’s previous insistence that he had been prepared to step aside for Anwar after Malaysia was done hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in November.
Dr Mahathir already revealed previously that he was baited into considering a new coalition with what were then Opposition parties after his political secretary convinced him that Anwar would demand to be made the deputy prime minister.
He also appeared to blame Anwar for letting Perikatan Nasional take over the federal government, saying the latter was “obsessed” with becoming the PM, which led PH to withdraw support for Dr Mahathir at a crucial point in the crisis.
Dr Mahathir resigned unexpectedly in February to trigger a political crisis that brought down the PH administration and culminated in Muhyiddin’s appointment as the new PM heading the new Perikatan Nasional government.
KUALA LUMPUR, March 12 — Former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said he is withholding his approval of Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s administration.
Yesterday, the new prime minister said he would like for Dr Mahathir to endorse his administration after expressing his wish for this government to be one that served all Malaysians.
Dr Mahathir explained to Sinar Harian in an interview that he would not endorse Muhyiddin as the latter has shown no aversion to associating with “irregulars, thieves, robbers and kleptocrats.”
“I cannot do that,” he said.
When it was pointed out to him that those whom he alluded to were not included in Muhyiddin’s Cabinet, Dr Mahathir suggested that it was inevitable.
Umno leaders’ responses to Muhyiddin’s Cabinet announcement appear to support Dr Mahathir’s assertion, as several are already grumbling about the apparent lack of recognition for both their party’s seniority and significance in the Perikatan Nasional coalition.
“For now (there are no tainted leaders in the Cabinet)... but these are powerful people. They have the power to bring down the government.
“Umno has over 50 (MPs), while Bersatu — if you add them all in — has only 30. If Umno withdraws support, then the government falls,” he said.
Umno does not have more than 50 MPs; it has 39 at the moment. Bersatu has 36 MPs.
Dr Mahathir resigned unexpectedly in February to trigger a political crisis that brought down the Pakatan Harapan administration and culminated in Muhyiddin’s appointment as the new PM heading the new Perikatan Nasional government.
PUTRAJAYA, March 11 — Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has snubbed calls for snap polls, saying he would rather lead the new government until the next general election, as questions remain over the legitimacy of Perikatan Nasional (PN) rule.
Muhyiddin appealed today for voters to give his administration a chance, asserting that the Cabinet he picked will strive to give its best, even as critics are sceptical that a predominantly Malay line-up can give fair representation.
“I don’t want snap elections... this government is for the people and it will work for the people,” he said during a press conference here.
KUALA LUMPUR, March 11 — Conspiracy theories remain over who specifically caused the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan administration but Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has offered up a culprit who had not been visibly involved in the crisis.
In an interview with Sinar Harian, the former prime minister said the true mastermind was his immediate predecessor, Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
“The one who was truly conspiring was Najib. When he was losing (the general election), he got the idea that if he could form a Malay-Muslim government, then he would get support from the Malays and win,” Dr Mahathir said in the interview.
“That is why he tried so long but his approach was not effective and ultimately failed, so we won.” Despite this, Najib continued pushing the Malay-Muslim narrative along with PAS and kept reaching out to Bersatu for the purpose, Dr Mahathir asserted.
He also said PH’s rivals sought to use DAP to drive a wedge between the coalition’s parties, insisting that the party must be expelled and for Bersatu to cooperate with Umno.
“All of a sudden, the losers are now considered winners, and those who won are said to have lost,” he said in apparent reference to the general election result.
“So, whose conspiracy is this? Is it mine? What reason do I have to conspire when I was already the prime minister?” he added.
Dr Mahathir also rejected suggestions that he triggered the crisis as he had not been prepared to step aside for a successor, saying he would have had no problem doing so at the right time.
Coincidentally, Najib posted a message on Twitter today that appeared to mock Dr Mahathir’s chances of removing Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyididn Yassin via a motion of no-confidence.
The former Umno president listed six MPS who previously pledged support for Dr Mahathir but who were now either in the Muhyiddin administration or have rescinded their support.
PH leaders previously asserted that the crisis was motivated by Umno leaders trying to escape convictions for their various corruption charges.
Umno leaders with ongoing cases against them include Najib, Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, and Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Mansor.
Najib’s wife and stepson, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor and Riza Shahriz Abdul Aziz, are also on trial for corruption and money laundering.
Dr Mahathir resigned unexpectedly in February to trigger a political crisis that brought down the PH administration and culminated in Muhyiddin’s appointment as the new PM heading the new Perikatan Nasional government.
MARCH 2 — In light of everything that had happened, Malaysians must appreciate Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad for what he had done for us. The way we, ordinary Malaysians, chose to react during the most recent political drama was admirable.
The calm dignity of the Malaysian public and our refusal to be used as pawns in this political fiasco is a testament to our (Malaysian public) maturity in dealing with bizarre behaviours from those who claim to represent us in Parliament.
Our readiness to respond with dignity and maturity for the sake of the nation is in huge part attributed to the lessons that Tun M had imparted on us.
Thank you, Tun M, for convincing us to replace Tun Abdullah and accept Datuk Seri Najib Razak as our prime minister in 2009. Now we know by experience what it means to live under a leader who is in it mainly for personal interests.
Perhaps, next time we would be more cautious and contemplative in considering advice of similar nature.
Thank you, Tun M, for putting aside personal history and working with your past opponents in order to bring Pakatan Harapan (PH) to Putrajaya.
Your willingness to form a most unlikely alliance with Anwar Ibrahim and the Democratic Action Party (DAP) — two entities that you consistently warn Malaysians against — is an exemplary act of humility in the pursuit of a particular goal.
And due to this sacrifice, Malaysians have personally experienced how parties such as DAP, PKR, Amanah, and Bersatu act when given power.
Now that Malaysians have experienced being governed by all the major political parties (both government and Opposition), we are in a better position to compare, contrast and evaluate with real life experiences the government that best suits us.
Thank you for the opportunity to experience both sides of the political spectrum. It will help us be better informed the next time we vote (whenever that may be).
Thank you, Tun M, for reminding us “that the Manifesto is not a bible” after PH won Putrajaya. You had taught and conditioned us to have a realistic expectationof our politicians when it comes to delivering promises and holding on to principles. You taught us not to be dogmatic in our approach to politics.
Thus, when we witnessed politicians scrambling and switching sides every few hours these past few days, we were mentally prepared. The public did not panic nor had a nervous breakdown. Life went on as usual.
Nothing extraordinary occurred except the news becoming the most popular TV show. Thank you for preparing us so well for this moment.
Thank you, Tun M, for refusing to handover the premiership to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. We are sure you have your reasons (which hopefully, if you are generous enough, can be shared with us).
From our perspective, Anwar is such a divisive figure, even within his own party. He had not proven his ability to command adequate respect from his own party members and reconcile the diverging interests among them.
And the sort of harm that members of his party are fond of inflicting on each other... That is exactly the sort of drama that we can do without.
If they can act like that to each other, what guarantee of security do Malaysians who do not share their political vision have under their leadership?
Thank you, Tun M, for resigning and forcing the politicians to reveal their true colours. Although it is still not clear where they stand and what their goals are (can we trust politicians with anything?), at least we know that they are a special breed which needs to be examined more closely.
Through this episode, Tun M had taught us a very important life lesson, especially for the young who are building up their career: No one is indispensible.
If you choose to resign, you better be sure that you are sure, as your boss may not want you back if you change your mind. Thank you, Tun M, for using yourself to illustrate this lesson.
Through all these lessons, Tun M had proven to be a most effective education minister. He educated us about the realities of life, and that is more powerful and valuable than any certificates (which, in any case, can be faked).
Because of you, Malaysians can have a greater chance of surviving the machinations of politics (provided we remember him and his lessons).
KUALA LUMPUR, March 2 — A former officer in the Prime Minister’s Office has provided his version of events that led to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s resignation and the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan government.
On Facebook, Adam Mukhriz Mohd Muhayeddin said the plot began unfolding in earnest on the fateful Sunday of February 23, after what appeared to be an uneventful PH presidential council meeting the Friday before.
“Azmin’s ‘Cartel’ met at Sheraton while Bersatu held a supreme council meeting. In that meeting, Tun refused to accept Umno (en bloc) as a component. Tun did not want Zahid, Azeez all entering.
“Are you crazy? We fought them tirelessly. Some are bound for jail and you want to accept them back and take over the government? On principle, Tun rejected this. Taking some MPs is fine, but not the whole party,” he wrote.
Some in the Bersatu supreme council backed Dr Mahathir’s position and he told the rest not to push him to abandon his principles, Adam said when singling out the former PM’s political secretary Zahid Mat Arip as the one who pressed Dr Mahathir the hardest.
Dr Mahathir previously disclosed that it was his political secretary who led him to believe that Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim would demand to be the deputy prime minister, lighting the fuse to the entire debacle.
When Dr Mahathir remained unconvinced, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin went to the former PM’s home with Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, GSP chairman Datuk Patinggi Abang Abdul Rahman Johari Openg, and former PKR deputy president Datuk Seri Azmin Ali, among others, to make their case.
Adam asserted that Ahmad Zahid also made demands of Dr Mahathir, including for a senior Cabinet role and his whole party to be accepted instead of piecemeal. He also demanded Dr Mahathir decide there and then.
“That night, the Sheraton Move took place. [Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Mansor] came as though he were a minister and the crowds parted, all those gathered that night were fantasising of picking this ministry or that,” Adam wrote.
From there, matters devolved rapidly. On Monday, PH leaders rushed to meet Dr Mahathir at his office but he had not gone in as he was at home ruminating. When they finally found him, they were all certain Dr Mahathir was the villain of the episode, Adam said.
While they were later convinced otherwise, it was too late as Dr Mahathir already tendered his resignation as the prime minister and this was accepted by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.
Adam went on to assert that Dr Mahathir resigned as the PM because he did not want to lead the coalition that later became Perikatan Nasional, which he would have if the PH administration collapsed as it eventually did.
He also asserted that Dr Mahathir could not attend the PH presidential council meeting that night as he had no standing to do so with Bersatu already out of the coalition.
“For PH, they might have thought Tun was insincere for not going. So they nominated Anwar as PM,” he continued.
That set in motion events that ultimately prevented Dr Mahathir from showing his majority support to the Agong as he could no longer count PH’s 92 lawmakers in his camp.
He also tried to convene a special parliamentary sitting to resolve the impasse today but the Speaker refused, Adam added.
The rest of his account is known as these played out in public view, culminating in Muhyddin being sworn in as the eighth prime minister yesterday.
“The saddest part is Tun M losing the faith of the people including the MPs he thought were his friends. That is why he said he was betrayed. Yes. The worst betrayal,” he wrote.
The details of Adam’s version dovetails with what Dr Mahathir and PH leaders have said in public but were interpreted differently at the time due to the lack of this added context.
Dr Mahathir revealed the crux of this during his final press conference as the interim prime minister last Thursday, after announcing the 2020 Economic Stimulus Package.
After a week of uncertainty and political intrigue, Muhyiddin emerged as the unexpected victor in what was initially thought to be a power struggle between Dr Mahathir and PKR president Anwar.
Muhyiddin was sworn in as the eighth prime minister of Malaysia yesterday but his position is not yet secure. PH is planning to test his level of support via a motion of no-confidence at the earliest opportunity in Parliament.
Allegiances also continue to shift as some of the lawmakers who declared for Muhyiddin and Dr Mahathir continue to alter their positions, making it difficult to conclusively determine who has the support they claim short of an open vote.