World

Chinese citizens question government response to COVID-19. Amy Klobuchar emerges as serious contender in US Democratic primaries. Indonesia and Australia sign free trade deal. Sinn Féin’s success in Irish elections. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Coronavirus whistleblower death sparks public anger

A couple wear plastic coats, gloves and masks as they shop for groceries at a Beijing supermarket this week.
Credit: Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

United States: In a Democratic primary race in which voters are obsessed with finding a candidate who can beat Donald Trump, Amy Klobuchar has a strong selling point. She has, as she regularly points out, “never lost an election”.

“I have won in the reddest of districts,” she said last month. “I have won in the suburban areas, in the rural areas. I have brought people with me.”

At the primary in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Klobuchar, a third-term Minnesota senator and former prosecutor, established that she is among the narrowing group of viable candidates. She came third, winning 20 per cent of the vote, behind Bernie Sanders, who won 26 per cent, and Pete Buttigieg, who won 24 per cent. But this was enough for pundits to declare a “Klobucharge”.

A moderate, Klobuchar appears to be gaining votes from those who had backed Joe Biden but fear that his candidacy is floundering.

Despite winning in New Hampshire, Sanders, a senator from neighbouring Vermont, did less well than expected. But he is now clearly the leading progressive, following disappointing results so far for Elizabeth Warren.

Klobuchar has emerged as a leading moderate, along with Buttigieg, who won in Iowa. At a debate before the New Hampshire vote, the pair sparred as Buttigieg, a 38-year-old former mayor from Indiana, attacked his older opponents for trying to solve problems by “looking back”.

Klobuchar, who is 59 – which, she said, “is the new 38” – responded: “We have a newcomer in the White House, and look where it got us. I think having some experience is a good thing.”

The next votes will be in Nevada, followed by South Carolina, and Super Tuesday – on March 3 – the largest single voting day of the race.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Indonesia: Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited Canberra this week and addressed a joint sitting of parliament, describing Australia as “Indonesia’s closest friend”.

This may have been excessive, but Widodo also accurately outlined the challenge facing the two countries. “We cannot choose our neighbours,” he said. “We have to choose to be friends.”

Widodo arrived days after his parliament ratified a long-awaited Australia–Indonesia free trade deal. But this agreement alone will not ensure that the relationship between the two countries finally starts to achieve its potential.

Trade between the two neighbours remains appallingly low. Indonesia has a population of about 270 million but is only Australia’s 13th-largest trading partner, behind Singapore, Hong Kong and Vietnam. The trade deal may help but broader challenges persist. On the Australian side, these include a lack of understanding about the country’s northern neighbour. A Lowy Institute poll last year found only 34 per cent of Australians agree that Indonesia is a democracy.

The trade deal needs to be accompanied by steps on both sides to encourage engagement. During Widodo’s visit, Scott Morrison announced that Monash University will become the first foreign university to open a campus in Indonesia. And, responding to a request from Widodo, he agreed to reconsider Australia’s tough visa requirements for Indonesian visitors, including a $140 application fee. These were not headline-grabbing developments but they might help to address the perennial problem – that these ostensibly close friends tend to show so little interest in each other.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

China: Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping dispatched the premier, Li Keqiang, to oversee the response to the coronavirus in Wuhan. But while Xi declared a “people’s war” against the outbreak, he has otherwise kept a noticeably low profile.

On Monday, he finally made an appearance on the front lines, wearing a surgical mask while visiting a hospital in Beijing. He had his temperature checked and had a video chat with medical staff in Wuhan, telling them, “We will eventually win this battle.”

By Thursday the virus, which has been named COVID-19, had killed 1367 people and infected 60,286 worldwide. Chinese factories slowly began reopening this week, but tens of millions of people are still under lockdown. The outbreak is currently expected to reduce China’s economic growth by one percentage point for the year.

Xi’s hospital visit may have been prompted by the public anger at the treatment of Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan who was reprimanded by police after raising concerns about the virus with fellow doctors. Last week, Li, aged 34, died from the infection. This led to a rare outpouring on social media of frustration with the authorities. Many shared a comment by Li from an interview he gave to China’s Caixin news group: “There should be more than one voice in a healthy society.”

The Communist Party has admitted that Li was mistreated but has tried to direct the blame at local authorities in Wuhan. Some China watchers have described the crisis as the country’s “Chernobyl moment”, suggesting it has exposed the lies and decay of the ruling party. But events in China can be hard to read. Xi’s appearance may indicate he wants to check the growing political discontent, or it may suggest he believes the public health tragedy is under control.

SPOTLIGHT: Sinn Féin

Ireland: Sinn Féin, a nationalist party that supports the reunification of Ireland, is best known for its role as the political wing of the IRA during the long-running conflict, known as The Troubles, in Northern Ireland. Since the conflict ended in 1998, Sinn Féin has been a strong force in Northern Ireland’s politics. But it has been a minor presence in Ireland, which has been ruled for a century by two centre-right parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

This changed last weekend at Ireland’s general elections. Sinn Féin, a left-wing party, won 24.5 per cent of the first-preference votes for the lower house, more than any other party. It contested only 42 of the 160 lower-house seats and won 37.

Yet the party’s success was credited less to its policies on reunification than its commitment to address rising housing and healthcare costs. Rents in Dublin are among the highest in the world, and the number of homeless people is soaring. Two years ago, Gerry Adams, who led Sinn Féin for 35 years, stepped down. He was replaced by Mary Lou McDonald, who campaigned on social policies and won strong support from younger voters who have little or no memory of The Troubles.

Sinn Féin’s success also appeared to be a symptom of the Brexit debate, which raised the prospect of reintroducing a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and fuelled talk of Irish reunification. McDonald is calling for a referendum on reunification within five years. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson will resist this but may face growing pressure now Sinn Féin has solid support on both sides of the border.

Before the election, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil ruled out forming a coalition with Sinn Féin, claiming that the party is not “normal” and still has links to violent elements in Northern Ireland. But The Troubles are over. Sinn Féin could yet be a part of a coalition government, and is expected to be a permanent third force in Irish politics.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 15, 2020 as "Whistleblower death sparks public anger".

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Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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