THE NEW coronavirus sweeping China has produced images of a government acting with urgency: erecting hospitals almost overnight, cordoning off megacities, declaring a “people’s war.” But from inside China comes a darker message. Xu Zhangrun, a professor at Tsinghua University who was punished for his unsparing critique of President Xi Jinping, declares that China has reached a dangerous dead end and the coronavirus has exposed the bankruptcy of its rulers. Mr. Xu courageously insists that democracy is the only way out.

In 2019, Mr. Xu was demoted, banned from teaching, writing and publishing. Undaunted, he has returned with an impassioned essay, translated by Geremie R. Barmé and published online, that is reminiscent of the work of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, the champion of free expression and human rights who died in a Chinese prison. Hopefully Mr. Xu will avoid the same fate.

Mr. Xu writes, “The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance.” He recalls the rise of a new generation of competent technocrats in earlier years. Now, he says, President Xi’s campaigns for stricter controls and a return to Maoist ideology has led to a “system-wide collapse of professional ethics and commitment.” The Chinese government system now “values the mediocre, the dilatory and the timid,” he says, and is mired in “inoperability.” The mess caused by local officials in Wuhan who covered up early signs of the disease “has infected every province and the rot goes right up to Beijing.”

Moreover, the powerful in China’s party-state have all but extinguished any signs of a developing civil society. Those who might have provided an early warning of the virus crisis, such as a free press, were suffocated by censorship. Mr. Xu denounces what he calls “big data totalitarianism” and “WeChat terrorism,” the latter being “a vast Internet police force that is empowered by the party-state to oversee, supervise and track every statement and action made by everyone in the country.” As he has before, Mr. Xu faults the autocratic president, who oversees a “party-state system that has no checks or balances, nor indeed a rational allocation of duties and responsibilities,” and “inevitably results in the rule of a clique of trusted lieutenants. Hence you have the equivalent of a court” under one strongman leader.

Mr. Xu says the reform wave of recent decades is “dead in a ditch,” and China “is little more than a crippled giant, that is if it can even be called a giant.” He says China cannot become a global power if it remains “blatantly incapable of treating its own people properly.” The salvation, he writes, is for China to embrace constitutional democracy, allowing for a free press, freedom of assembly and association, an end to secret police surveillance, and respect for basic human rights, including the right to vote in open elections. “In the end, it is about freedom,” he writes, urging the Chinese people to “rage against this injustice; let your lives burn with a flame of decency; break through the stultifying darkness and welcome the dawn.”

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