A Singapore paper’s publication of a blistering opinion piece criticizing Xi Jinping did not escape notice on Weibo, where netizens surreptitiously praised it.
Titled “The Economy Is The Problem, Its Root Is Politics,” the piece was authored by Hong Kong businessman and writer Lew Mon-hung, a former member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and a once ardently pro-China personality. It laid the blame for China’s current economic malaise squarely at the feet of Xi Jinping, the cult of personality around him, and the Party’s failure to enact political reform—namely democratization. If published in most overseas Chinese-language media outlets, the article might not have made much of a stir. However, it appeared in Singapore’s flagship Chinese-language paper, Lianhe Zaobao, which is widely perceived as pro-China. A recent investigation from The Washington Post and The Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that Lianhe Zaobao “now routinely echoes some of Beijing’s most strident falsehoods” and runs regular opinion columns from sitting Party officials without noting their affiliations. Lianhe Zaobao is one of the few foreign Chinese-language news websites that can be accessed from within China—although editors admit they censor the mainland-version of their site. The publication of this opinion piece is a rather extraordinary departure from the paper’s normal editorial line. That being said, it is not the first time Lianhe Zaobao has published Lew Mon-hung essays criticizing China. In recent years, he has published pieces spelling out his opposition to the now-abandoned zero-COVID policy and disillusionment with hyper-politicization. By May 2022, he had already become a fierce critic of China’s enduring support for Russia despite the latter’s invasion of Ukraine:
Given the fact that Moscow invaded Kyiv and not vice versa, we must take a stand and identify Russia as the aggressor, condemn the invasion, and distance ourselves from them. Only then can we pursue the path of peace and development, and avoid a fate where we are sanctioned by and isolated from the international community. If we fail to do so, “Reform and Opening,” “The Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation,” and “The Chinese Dream” will be but so many empty words. A nation that has lost its values will surely be scorned and cast aside by the international community—it is a nation without hope. [Chinese]
Lew’s latest essay for Lianhe Zaobao is nearly unprecedented in its stridency and its directness, for both the author and the outlet. With subheadings like, “Sino-American friendship is a key driving force for economic growth” and “unchecked absolute power is the ultimate form of corruption,” Lew singled out the “socialist fundamentalism” of Xi Jinping’s economic program. Lew argued that zero-COVID was the greatest political mistake since the Cultural Revolution and warned that worse upheavals remain likely unless the Party immediately moves to democratize China and guarantee freedom of speech. CDT has translated relevant portions of Lew’s essay:
An important backdrop to these recent years of economic downturn is that certain individuals have violated the provision in the Second Resolution on History to “prohibit the personality cult in any form,” preached that “loyalty that is not absolute is absolute disloyalty,” and promoted “one position as the highest authority, setting the tone,” all of which have pushed the personality cult to new heights.
[…] The three years of the coronavirus pandemic are an illustrative example. A tide of politicization engulfed everything. Debate over public health policy—obviously a question of science—was unjustifiably elevated to a struggle between systems. Far more damaging than the virus itself was the secondary disaster wrought by the adoption of the unscientific slogan “unswervingly persist in zero-COVID,” and the arbitrary lockdown of cities, highways, and borders; the suspension of all work, production, and economic activity; the severing of corporations’ production, distribution, and retail capabilities; and the wanton trampling of people’s rights, personal freedoms, and dignity, including their right of residency and right to private property. Grave casualties were inflicted on the industrial production and supply chains of “the world’s factory,” making this the third greatest upheaval in modern Chinese history, behind only the catastrophes of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The economic loss was grievous, civil liberties were destroyed, and the government’s credibility fell dramatically—with no end to the disaster in sight.
[…] The current decline of China’s once-booming economy is the tragic consequence of the government’s piecemeal approach to economic reform and failure to enact political reform.
Any attempt to safeguard the Chinese Communist Party’s lock on power by returning to the pre-Reform and Opening era of socialist fundamentalism—much less to the class struggle and cult of personality that were the guiding principles of Mao’s Cultural Revolution—will only multiply and intensify the types of social conflicts engendered by moribund Stalinist political systems. It is this that has led prudent entrepreneurs to flee and foreign investors to steer clear of troubled waters, and laid waste to China’s production lines, supply chains, and capital flows. The structural collapse of the Chinese economy has, in turn, shaken the Communist Party’s hold on power.
During his final press conference in office, former Premier Wen Jiabao issued a grave warning: “Without successful structural political reform, it is impossible for us to fully institute structural economic reform and the gains we have made in this area may be lost … historical tragedies such as the Cultural Revolution may happen again.” Absolute power in the absence of any supervision or restriction, checks or balances is the ultimate form of corruption. It is the root cause of corruption in a variety of spheres including the bureaucracy, the military, the judiciary, foreign development aid, the medical and pharmaceutical industry, education, and engineering.
The prescription is simple: political reform, including the implementation of constitutional democracy, universal suffrage and elections, required financial disclosures for all government officials, judicial independence, and guaranteed freedom of speech and freedom of the press to foster public oversight of the government. This is the only way to ensure rapid, high-quality economic growth. [Chinese]
The essay caused a stir within China. On Weibo, one netizen wrote, “Lew Mon-hung’s anti-Party essay is worth a read.” Another wrote, “That Lew Mon-hung essay put it pretty bluntly, haha.” Others wrote more obliquely: “Recommending a good essay from Lianhe Zaobao, August 21, 2023. Author: Lew Mon-hung” and “That Lianhe Zaobao essay 👍.” Another Weibo user wrote: “The Lianhe Zaobao essay shows a true understanding of China, including the solution [it needs].” All of the above comments were censored, as were screenshots of Liu’s essay. Lianhe Zaobao itself became a restricted term on Weibo. Searches for the outlet only returned results from so-called “Blue V” accounts affiliated with the Party-state.