By Christopher Tan (PZ ’21)
Xi Jinping could have not have imagined a worse start to the Lunar New Year. A sudden outbreak of viral pneumonia from Wuhan has sent the country into lockdown and has left world healthcare services scrambling to stem its spread. This latest crisis is a cruel ending to a year that has seen Xi struggle in a trade war with the US, respond to unrest in Hong Kong and, answer to criticism of China’s human rights record. This Lunar New Year, more so than ever, Xi must have really wished for his fortunes to change.
Prior to 2019, Xi Jinping’s presidency oversaw thunderous economic growth that fueled China’s rise as a superpower. After market reforms allowed China’s economy to grow exponentially in the 2010s, he consolidated his grip on Beijing by lifting term limits and concentrating political power in his hands. This has had a knock-on effect on the operations of China’s vast bureaucracy. Those hoping to gain political clout have to please Xi, with many officials accused of forging data and information to gain his favor. As accusations emerge of a vast cover up in the government’s handling of the epidemic, an inadequate response by Xi may be fatal.
President Xi deserves credit where it’s due, particularly from a Chinese perspective. Recent years of his rule has seen him adopt policies that have led to critical geopolitical gains. The One Belt One Road initiative, in which China plans to fund infrastructure projects in 129 countries, has increased global economic reliance on Chinese investment. This has allowed Xi to flout evidence of the success of his “Chinese Dream”, a de-facto slogan of national prosperity that has characterized his rule. With China’s middle class growing from four percent of its population in 2002 to over 31 percent by the time Xi took office, the thickening of Chinese wallets allowed him to tie his legitimacy to China’s continuing economic success.
While the challenges of 2019 tested Xi’s governance, the president was able to censor this through the country’s tight control over the internet and the media. This has placed the narrative of events firmly within his control. Yet, this crisis is different. With the seriousness of this outbreak of viral pneumonia forcing the central government to be transparent in the policies it rolls out, Xi Jinping will have fewer places to hide if his government is perceived to be making mistakes.
There is already increasing scrutiny. The mayor of Wuhan, the virus’s ground-zero, told state television that “there was not enough warning” given to local residents about the disease after a huge banquet involving over 40,000 families was held in the midst of the pandemic. With the government keen to project its image of control to quell public fears, accusations of a vast cover up have emerged. On Weibo, China’s heavily regulated version of twitter, hundreds of posts complained about a lack of fresh information and questioned why health authorities didn’t inform the public early enough about the disease’s threat.
If the disease continues to spiral out of control, the decisions that President Xi makes to confront it will play a decisive role in his legitimacy to the Chinese people. China’s government does not have a great record of handling pandemics. In 2003, during the SARS endemic, media reports on its spread across Southern China were heavily censored, with patients and their families prevented from speaking out. It took a whistleblower to leak the severity of the virus to international media for the crisis to be recognized. By then, it had already been over two months since the first infection. With the disease going onto spread throughout the world, the government was forced to officially apologize for its poor response and sack powerful party leaders.
Xi will be eager to not repeat the same mistakes. So far, his response to the pandemic has been swift and dominant; true to his style. A crisis group has been appointed to manage the epidemic, according to state media, with these leaders empowered by Xi utilize all available resources to contain the outbreak. Announcements on the disease were confirmed within weeks and the central government has been more transparent over its response. Authorities have placed 56 million people – similar to the population of South Korea- into lockdown, restricting travel and banning large gatherings in several major cities. Furthermore, the Communist Party has warned that anyone who covers up details about infections will be “forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame”.
“Confronted with the grave situation of this accelerating spread of pneumonia, we must step up the centralized and united leadership under the party central” said Xi in a broadcasted announcement to the public. “As long as we have steadfast confidence, work together, scientific prevention and cures, and precise policies, we will definitely be able to win the battle,” he added.
With the situation in Wuhan growing precarious, military doctors have been flown into the city to assist overwhelmed hospital services and, two makeshift hospitals are being constructed within weeks to deal with the growing numbers of cases. A blanket ban on wildlife trade, an unprecedented act in China, was even issued after the disease was found to have jumped from animals to humans in a Wuhan seafood market. Additionally, events across major cities like Shanghai and Beijing have been cancelled out of public safety fears and the Lunar New Year holiday has been extended until February 2nd, as the government attempts to curb the virus’ spread.
Yet, there are fears that Xi’s actions have come too late. Despite the virus first appearing in a Wuhan seafood market in December 2019, authorities failed to declare it a public health crisis until a month later, after which the disease was also found to be transmitting from human to human. Familiar claims of censorship from victims have emerged, with images circulating of overcrowded hospitals in unsanitary conditions. To make matters worse for Xi, the virus is hitting at the busiest travel period in Asia – the Lunar New Year.
“A bigger outbreak is certain,” said Guan Yi, a virologist who helped identify the SARS outbreak that would go onto kill 800 people globally. With huge numbers of people travelling throughout the country and the region ahead of the holiday period, the virus could have already jumped across Asia.
“We have passed through the ‘golden period’ for prevention and control,” he said in an interview with Caixin Magazine. “What’s more, we’ve got the holiday traffic rush and a dereliction of duty from certain officials.”
Worryingly, allegations of a vast cover-up have spread fears throughout China. A video on Chinese social media showed a nurse in Wuhan claiming that over 90,000 people have already been affected by the disease in China – a far greater figure than the 2,744 figure issued by the government. Public trust seemingly hangs by a thread.
At the time of publishing, the death toll from the outbreak has reached 107, with more than 2,700 people thought have been infected worldwide. Outside Mainland China, cases have already been confirmed in other countries, with infections occurring in Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, France, the United States, Canada and Australia. More are expected to follow.
For now, Xi’s legitimacy hinges on the extent of how badly this disease spirals. While China’s response to the epidemic has shown improvement over its handling of SARS, failure to control its spread will inevitably take its toll on trust in Beijing’s leadership. The symptoms of these errors are perhaps already clear. With China’s growth focused model incentivizing policymakers to conceal information and data that harms their legitimacy, accountability for policy errors becomes harder to gauge as this sentiment becomes the norm. This will not work in the president’s favor. In Xi’s China, separating the man from the state is a much harder task when the two have become so intertwined.
The situation may already be beyond Xi’s grip, a situation he is not accustomed to. Should the virus grow and cause the same kind of fear and panic that accompanied SARS, Xi’s legitimacy could crumble as trust in his government comes under scrutiny. Conversely, if the virus subsides and Xi’s drastic measures prove to work in containing its spread, public trust will stick. Either way, Xi finds himself with nowhere to hide. While blogs and activists have been easy targets of his security apparatus in prior crises, body bags and mass graves won’t be.