Where is Xi Jinping? The leader of China commands the fight against the coronavirus from safe heights
“Every Chinese person, every member of the Chinese nation, should be proud to live in this great era,” he said, applauding the day before the Lunar New Year holiday. “Our progress will not be stopped by storms and storms.”
Xi did not mention a new dangerous coronavirus that had already been established tenaciously in the country. As he spoke, the government was blocking Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, in a frantic attempt to stop the spread of the virus from its epicenter.
Live updates: the number of deaths from viruses in China reaches 800, more than 37,000 infected
The coronavirus epidemic, which killed more than 800 people in China until Sunday and made tens of thousands sick, occurs when Xi has struggled with a number of other challenges: a downturn economy, major protests in Hong Kong, an election in Taiwan that rejected Beijing and a prolonged trade war with the United States.
Now Xi faces an accelerated health crisis that is also political: a profound test of the authoritarian system he has built around himself in the past seven years. As the Chinese government struggles to contain the virus amid growing public discontent with its performance, the changes that Xi has introduced could make it hard for him to escape guilt.
“It’s a big shock to the legitimacy of the ruling party. I think it could be only the second of the incident on June 4, 1989. It’s so big,” said Rong Jian, a policy writer in Beijing, referring to the armed repression against protesters. from Tiananmen Square that year.
“There is no doubt about his control over power,” he added, “but the form of control and its consequences have damaged its legitimacy and reputation.”
Xi himself has recognized what is at stake and described the outbreak as “an important test of China’s system and government capacity.”
However, as China’s battle with the coronavirus intensified, Xi put the country’s number two leader, Li Keqiang, in charge of a leadership group that manages the emergency, effectively making it the public face of the response of the government. It was Li Keqiang who traveled to Wuhan to visit the doctors.
Xi, on the contrary, retreated from public view for several days. That was not without precedents, although it stood out in this crisis, after the previous Chinese leaders had used disaster times to try to show a more common touch. Television and state newspapers almost always lead with flattering coverage of every Xi movement.
That withdrawal from the spotlight, some analysts said, noted an effort by Xi to isolate itself from a campaign that can fail and provoke public anger. However, Xi has consolidated power, leaving aside or eliminating rivals, so there are few people left to blame when something goes wrong.
“Politically, I think he is discovering that having a total dictatorial power has a drawback, which is that when things go wrong or have a high risk of going wrong, you also have to take full responsibility,” said Victor Shih, an associate . Professor at the University of California, San Diego who studies Chinese politics.
Much of the country’s population has been told to stay at home, factories remain closed and airlines have cut off the service. Experts warn that the coronavirus could hit the economy if it is not contained quickly.
The government is also having trouble controlling the narrative. Xi now faces an unusually acute public discontent that even China’s rigorous censorship apparatus has not been able to completely quell.
The death of an ophthalmologist in Wuhan, Dr. Li Wenliang, who was censored for warning his fellow medical school about the spread of a new dangerous disease in December, has unleashed a torrent of public pain and rage accumulated by the Government management of the crisis. Chinese academics have launched at least two petitions following Li’s death, each of which calls for freedom of expression.
The state media still show Xi as the last in control, and there are no signs of facing a serious challenge from the party leadership. However, the crisis has already contaminated China’s image as an emerging, efficient, stable and strong superpower, which could eventually rival the United States.
It remains to be seen how much the political position of Xi could erode the crisis, but it could weaken its long-term position as it prepares to take a probable third term as general secretary of the Communist Party in 2022.
In 2018, Xi obtained approval to eliminate the constitutional limits of his term as president of the country, making his plan for another five-year term seem almost certain.
If Xi emerges from this politically insecure crisis, the consequences are unpredictable. You can become more open to engagement within the party elite. Or it can duplicate the compelling forms that have made it China’s most powerful leader in generations.
“Xi’s control over power is not light,” said Jude Blanchette, president of Freeman in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“While the hard response to this crisis undoubtedly adds another stain to Xi’s tenure in office,” Blanchette added, “the logistics of organizing a leadership challenge against him remain formidable.”
In recent days, despite the lack of public appearances, state media have portrayed Xi as a tireless commander in chief. This week they began calling the government’s fight against the virus the “people’s war,” a phrase used in the official reading of Xi’s phone call with President Donald Trump on Friday.
There are more and more signs that propaganda this time is proving unconvincing.
The reception of the Lunar New Year in Beijing, where Xi spoke, became a source of popular anger, a symbol of a slow government to respond to suffering in Wuhan. Xi and other leaders seem to have been surprised by the ferocity of the epidemic.
It is almost certain that senior officials would have been informed of the emerging crisis by the time the national health authorities told the World Health Organization on December 31, but neither Xi nor other officials in Beijing informed the public.
Xi’s first recognition of the epidemic came on January 20, when brief instructions were issued in his name. His first public appearance after the closure of Wuhan on January 23 came two days later, when he chaired a meeting of the highest organ of the Communist Party, the Politburo Standing Committee, which was shown on Chinese television. “We are sure we can win in this battle,” he proclaimed.
At that time, the death toll was 106. As it increased, Xi allowed other officials to assume more visible roles. The only appearances of Xi have been meeting foreign visitors in the Great Hall of the People or presiding over the Communist Party meetings.
On January 28, Xi met with the executive director of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and told Tedros that he “personally directed” the government’s response. Subsequent reports in the state media omitted the phrase, saying that Xi’s government was “collectively directing” the answer.
Since nothing about how Xi is represented in state media happens by accident, the adjustment suggested a deliberate effort to emphasize shared responsibility.
Xi did not reappear in official broadcasts for a week, until a highly scripted meeting on Wednesday with Cambodia’s authoritarian leader Hun Sen.
There is little evidence that Xi has renounced power behind the scenes. Li Keqiang, the prime minister in charge of the leadership group for the crisis, and other officials have said they receive their orders from Xi. The group is full of officials who work closely with Xi, and their managers emphasize their authority.
“The way the epidemic is being handled from above simply does not match the argument that there has been a clear shift towards more consultative and collective leadership,” said Holly Snape, a member of the British Academy of the University of Glasgow who studies Chinese. politics.
The scale of discontent and possible challenges for Xi could be measured by repeated online references to the nuclear accident in Chernobyl. Many of them appeared under the guise of critics of the viewers of the popular television miniseries of the same name, which is still available for broadcast within China.
“At any time, in any country, it’s the same. Cover everything,” one critic wrote.
The 1986 Soviet Union, however, was a different country from that of China in 2020.
The Soviet state was sinking when Chernobyl happened, said Sergey Radchenko, a professor of international relations at Cardiff University in Wales, who has written extensively on Soviet and Chinese politics.
“The Chinese authorities, on the other hand, are demonstrating an ability to cope, a willingness to take unprecedented measures, logistic feats that can actually increase the legitimacy of the regime,” he added.
Radchenko compared Xi’s actions with those of previous leaders in times of crisis: Mao Zedong after the Cultural Revolution or Deng Xiaoping after the repression of Tiananmen Square.
“He’s doing what Mao and Deng would have done in similar circumstances: step back in the shadows while still being firmly in charge.”