“We should not criticise the Chinese government for what is, essentially, an unfathomable act of God,” said my priest in a video message on WeChat, the app that rules all inside the People’s Republic of China. He had to go onto social media to announce that English mass was cancelled that Sunday, even though we live far from the epicentre of the Coronavirus outbreak that has struck China.

As someone who has a difficult relationship with the Catholic church, I am inclined to question the judgement of a priest, but knowing that my expat parish has to abide by the rules of the local Chinese diocese, which in turn has to abide by the rules set by the atheist Communist Party of China apparatchiks in charge of ‘spiritual purity’, I would not dare to disagree with him openly.

Xi Jinping
Chinese leader Xi Jinping visits areas affected by the coronavirus. Photo: CGTN screenshot.

An outbreak of a contagious disease that has apparently mutated from a common virus cannot be laid at the feet of the Eternal Red Emperor of China, Xi Jinping. In ancient times, Chinese emperors feared these outbreaks of disease as much as they did floods and earthquakes, not only because of the human toll in their earthly realm, but because these were often seen as heavenly portents of a dynastic change. If an emperor was faced with natural disasters, it could mean supernatural proof that he had lost ‘the mandate of heaven’.

Fortunately, we live in times of science and we know that this contagion is a virus without any guidance from heaven. We know that earthquakes are caused by shifts of huge plates. And the secular priesthood of white-robed initiates and Saint Greta assure us that many floods are caused by our materialistic sins. The virtues of ancient eastern and western superstitions should be replaced by an eternal self-flagellation of anguish over eating beef and we should worship using the rituals of emission-offsetting virtue-signalling.

We should not believe in superstitions about viruses or believe poorly named “sceptics” when it comes to our imminent doom. There is no such thing as a mandate of heaven, the anodyne afterlife devoid of sin is what we should aim for now, with vegan precision, in order to achieve a carbon-neutral Nirvana. We should not criticise the Chinese government for what is, essentially, a random and utterly ‘unpredestined’ event.

Human beings have taken the mystery out of the mysterious, but, paradoxically, both our hubris and fear have both become irrational. We believe we can shape the world as Xi Jinping controls his country with an iron will and a great intellect. There are many western intellectuals whom I have spoken with who admire the Chinese leader, just as nutcases on the right admire the less sophisticated ‘wannaxi’ (wannabe-Xi Jinping) strongmen Putin and Trump.

Putin and Trump
A photo of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump taken in 2017. Photo: GovRus.

Then, when disaster strikes, we stare at the red dots on the TV news map and contemplate the secular end of times. The first known coronavirus infection in the city of Wuhan presented symptoms beginning on Dec. 1, and by late December there was alarm in Wuhan’s medical circles. A doctor who told a WeChat group about it was disciplined by Communist Party of China (CPC) officials whose reasoning, in this case, is not dissimilar to that of the people in charge of ‘spiritual purity’ in my diocese: a message that could pose a danger to the nation’s stability under Xi should not be shared.

The gospel that is held high by the priest in my expat parish contains deep, eternal truths. No wonder that in Xi’s China I cannot take any Chinese friends to that mass. The messages from medical professionals about the dangers of the Wuhan virus were likewise true. No wonder that, in Xi’s China, it was scrubbed from the Chinese intranet and the people spreading the news were punished and censored. The doctor became a tragic hero when he himself died from the rumour he had been mongering.

Li Wenliang
Ophthalmologist Li Wenliang  who tried to warn fellow medics of the coronavirus outbreak, died on February 6 after contracting the virus himself. Photo: Li Wenliang.

The Party has one consolation amid the public outcry after his death: because of the very same virus, the people will not go into the streets to commemorate the death of this tragic hero. The Chinese government tried to control the narrative, another sign of irrational hubris, and as a result the contagion was allowed to spread, contributing to equally irrational fear. Although less clumsy than with SARS, the government kept all non-Party groups that could have helped prevent the spread of the virus out of the loop.

A tightly controlled system that is also open to the world is an oxymoron. A one-party system run on orthodox Marxist principles that has stifled public debate, that has muzzled its own journalists while also censoring those outside its purview, and that has silenced lawyers who could provide some degree of accountability can and must be held accountable for its failures.

Unfortunately China has a long narrative tradition of virtuous and competent national leaders and their corrupt and incompetent local representatives. The fact that criticism of the Wuhan leadership is not censored online should give those apparatchiks reason to worry, especially since criticism of Xi Jinping and others in higher positions is now scrubbed fairly quickly from social media. A few days ago people could spread negative comments even faster than the virus, they are now limited to only infecting those who already dislike the local machine.

Weibo Li Wenliang Wuhan government owe Dr Li Wenliang an apology
A hashtag called “Wuhan government owes Dr. Li Wenliang an apology” became a sensitive phrase and content related to the hashtag could not be shown on Chinese social media platforms like Weibo. Photo: Weibo screenshot.

Nevertheless, the local bosses of the CPC are still representatives of an entire regime. If the tragedy of the Wuhan virus outbreak has a tiny but important side-effect, it could be taking the mystery out of the image of an unflappable and serenely in control CPC. It will probably not lead to the mandate of heaven being taken away from Xi Jinping and his Marxist-Leninist dynasty, but the terrible disease can expose the truth of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. Like all forms of Socialism, it is essentially hubris. For a person of faith only God can punish those who want to be as the gods; his unfathomable ways are manifold.

Alexander is a lecturer at the Arnhem Business School in the Netherlands and a fellow of the Sima Qian Foundation, advising governments and businesses about how the rise of China affects the global economy. With over ten years of work experience in China, he has written extensively about Chinese business and how free market solutions would solve many of China's problems. He has published books and articles in Dutch and English. On Press Freedom Day 2016 a Dutch collection of his essays was published by Pharos publishers and the proceeds were donated to HKFP.