Covid-19 a stress test for Xi Jinping
IF you wonder as I do how the coronavirus disease 2019 ( Covid-19) epidemic is impacting on Xi Jinping and his lifetime presidency, look up and read online an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs: “The coronavirus is a stress test for Xi Jinping” by Elizabeth Economy (Foreign Affairs, Feb. 20, 2020).
It is by far the most informative and comprehensive report on the viral crisis that I have read, topping others that I earlier studied.
Yesterday ( February 14), the Associated Press said China had reported another sharp rise in the number of people infected with the new virus, as the death toll neared 1,400.
The National Health Commission said 121 more people had died and there were 5,090 new confirmed cases.
It’s troubling to just keep score of the toll of the virus, as though it were a sports game. People are dying and tens of thousands are stricken.
I therefore search online for articles that do more than the routinary, and strive to provide a full perspective on the situation, particularly on the struggle between government and disease.
The article in Foreign Affairs is, in my estimate, a must-read. You come away looking at Xi Jinping and the emergency in a new light.
I reproduce below key excerpts from Ms. Economy’s
Foreign Affairs article.
Worst crisis for Xi regime
“On February 4, Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States, prepared to address an audience of students, scholars and business people in San Diego, California. Before the ambassador could speak, a young Chinese man stood up and yelled, ‘ Xi Jinping, step down!’ Security quickly whisked the man away, and the event went on.
“A handful of similar calls for the resignation of Chinese President
Xi Jinping have popped up on the Chinese Web in recent weeks, from citizens who accuse the country’s leadership of bungling the state’s response to the deadly coronavirus that has spread throughout the country. Like the protester in San Diego these critical posts have disappeared almost immediately.
“The coronavirus outbreak is on track to become the worst humanitarian and economic crisis of Xi’s tenure, but the Chinese president is certainly not likely to resign. In fact, Xi has spent seven years in power building a political system designed to withstand just such a crisis. He has centralized authority in his own hands, enhanced top- down state control, limited the free flow of information within and across the country’s borders, and adopted an assertive foreign policy designed to cajole and coerce other countries into doing as China says….
Contain and control
“After initially dragging its feet, Beijing has undertaken a herculean effort to contain the coronavirus. The Chinese Communist Party ( CCP) has effectively quarantined entire provinces with a total population exceeding 100 million. It has ordered factories that manufacture face masks into overdrive. Perhaps most impressive, it has constructed massive makeshift hospitals and quarantine centers in a few short weeks. The scale and speed of these measures are a testament to the highly centralized system and top- down approach to policy design and implementation that the CCP has perfected under Xi….
“The very existence of the crisis points to gaping contradictions at the heart of Xi’s regime.
“All the while, Chinese officials have taken care to muzzle critics and control public narratives about the outbreak. These measures, too, are a hallmark of Xi’s China: long before the current crisis, the president built a mighty censorship apparatus to control the flow of information in the country. Now, seasoned censors with years of practice swiftly delete any online posts about the virus that they deem too critical or otherwise objectionable. In some cases, local security forces track down and detain the posts’ authors.
“Beijing has also worked hard to bring the international community into line. Concerned lest the epidemic damage China’s international standing, Beijing has responded to global anxieties with its trademark mix of diplomatic confidence and coercion. Chinese diplomats insist that the country is rising to the challenge in a transparent manner, sharing information with other governments, and fighting the virus as much for the sake of the international community as in its own interest. Yet they are quick to condemn any steps foreign governments take that might signal a lack of confidence in Beijing.
“When Indonesia announced plans to restrict food imports from China, for instance, Beijing’s ambassador in Jakarta issued a subtle threat, warning of a ‘negative impact.’ For the most part, Chinese displeasure has not kept countries from canceling flights or closing their borders. Some, however, have placed their political fates in Xi’s hands. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, for example, refused to evacuate his citizens from Wuhan, and even traveled to China to meet with Xi, who lauded him for being ‘a friend in need.’
“Even the World Health Organization ( WHO) has been fulsome in its praise of Beijing’s handling of the crisis. The WHO’s leadership refused to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern until the last possible moment....
Public health with Chinese characteristics
“Xi’s system of governance has protected him from significant political fallout from the epidemic, but has also created the very conditions that allowed the virus to spread so fast in the first place. Because the Chinese state apparatus is so centralized, information pools around bottlenecks and often fails to reach those who need it most. The mayor of Wuhan noted in a televised interview in late January that he passed information regarding the coronavirus to the relevant authorities early on, but he was not authorized to release that information to the public….
“When 34-year-old Dr. Li Wenliang first raised the alarm about the virus in a small online chat group in late December, he was detained and forced to sign a statement disavowing his comments. His death from the virus on February 7 provoked an outpouring of grief and anger, as well as calls for freedom of speech across the Chinese Web…
“The state’s attempt to silence Li and other doctors also drew criticism from a high- ranking judge, who, in a rare public rebuke, said that citizens would have benefited from early warnings about the virus. But Beijing remains as committed to stemming the free flow of information as it is determined to fight the actual virus, even when those priorities are in clear conflict. Officials have repeatedly threatened those who spread unauthorized information, leaving the media, nongovernmental organizations, and individual citizens little space to provide real- time feedback and on- the- ground updates….
“The distribution of medical supplies and financial support, too, has suffered as a result of Beijing’s control complex. Officials have designated only a few central government– supported charity organizations to receive and distribute public donations….
Equally troubling, Beijing’s determination to control the flow of information between China and the rest of the world led it to reject several offers by the international community to send infectious disease experts to help fight the virus’s spread.…
“Beijing has already decided whom to blame officially for the epidemic: inept local authorities in the city of Wuhan — the epicenter of the outbreak — whose inaction allowed the virus to spread. Whether such scapegoating will be enough to prevent the Chinese people from turning their anger toward
Xi Jinping and other top leaders will depend in large part on how long the crisis lasts. For now, the CCP can point to the new hospitals and quarantine centers it has built and extol doctors and nurses while using local government officials as the fall guys.
“But as the death toll rises and costs mount, the government may struggle to deflect blame that may damage Xi’s credibility and that of the party. That the president has kept a relatively low profile throughout the crisis is telling. One would have expected that ‘Xi Dada,’ who has assumed the Mao-era appellation of ‘ People’s Leader,’ would take center stage in Beijing’s public response to the virus. Yet despite state media reports emphasizing the president’s role as an authoritative commander in chief, Xi has largely sought to lead from behind, leaving it to Premier Li Keqiang and Vice Premier Sun Chunlan to inspect hospitals and comfort patients in Wuhan…
“Likewise, Xi appears keen on preempting a deeper crisis of public confidence. In a speech last week, he called for initial policy reforms, including an improved crisis management system and the closure of wet markets, the open- air stalls for wildlife trade that were the original source of the current outbreak. But such actions are limited in scope and imagination… What most Chinese will desire instead is what citizens anywhere would want: an honest accounting for what transpired, changes that will ensure it never happens again, and a leader with the integrity to say, ‘ The buck stops here.’”