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We get the leadership we settle for

  • 16 March 2020
The eighteenth-century French philosopher Joseph de Maistre once wrote that ‘every nation gets the government it deserves.’ While the quip clearly does not do justice to the many civically minded citizens in both Australia and China, the recent run of calamities has shown some surprising and remarkable similarities between the two systems.

Since late 2019, both President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have come under fire for their shortcomings in times of national crisis. China as a hotspot of COVID-19 and Australia with the quartet of severe climate change, a lengthy drought, an horrific fire season and the inevitability of the coronavirus crashing onto our shores.

And yet, giving Maistre some due, the Chinese public has largely accepted the governing of the Party under the attitude that ‘if the Party lets me get rich and stays out of my personal life, I’ll keep ignoring what it does in places like Xinjiang’, while the Australian voting public decisively re-elected Morrison’s party at the last election, to the amazement of even the politicians themselves.

Both leaders have worked hard at marketing a cult of personality — one as ‘Papa Xi’ and the ‘Chairman of Everything’ (in the memorable phrase of Australian Sinologist Professor Geremie Barmé) and the other as a daggy dad Scomo from the Shire, complete with miracle-working cape hidden under his baseball cap. To have their public personas challenged by the people must be galling for both.

In Xi’s case he simply disappeared from public view for an extended time and in the last week of January the government-run newspaper, The People’s Daily, did not run his image on the front page for several days. In China, this is highly unusual for a leader still in charge. Previously, when high-ranked officials vanished it meant that they were about to be purged, but in this instance it was a deliberate act of distancing and of trying to protect the leader from the virus’ fallout.

Since the early weeks of February, however, Xi and his officials have been seeking to re-cast his earlier actions as heroic struggles against the tide of contaminants, making black become white and deception become decisive moves. While it is known within China that Xi knew at least by early January and likely even in late December of the new virus — because heroic citizens like ophthalmologist Li Wenliang had alerted their colleagues to the new strain