Covid-19 a stress test for Xi Jin­ping

The Manila Times - - Front Page - YEN MAKABENTA

First word

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….

Gap­ing con­tra­dic­tions

“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.…

Blame game

“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.’”

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