Outside a railway station in Shanghai, February 2020
Aly Song / Reuters

On February 4, Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States, prepared to address an audience of students, scholars, and businesspeople 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. For now, at least, the epidemic has brought into sharp relief the extent of Xi’s power. But the very existence of the crisis points to gaping contradictions and weaknesses at the heart of his regime. The longer Beijing takes to contain the virus, the wider and more consequential those cracks will become.

CONTAIN AND CONTROL

After initially dragging its feet, Beijing has undertaken a herculean effort to contain the coronavirus. The Chinese Communist Party 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 and that gives it great leeway to mobilize vast resources in times of crisis. 

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 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, and even then, WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged other countries not to impose travel bans or take other drastic measures that would isolate China. And at Beijing’s direction, the WHO has refused to allow Taiwan to participate directly in briefings on the coronavirus, notwithstanding calls from other countries to make an exception for the island nation (which is not a formal WHO member) given the gravity of the epidemic.

Xi and WHO director Tedros Adhanom in Beijing, January 2020
Xi and WHO director Tedros Adhanom in Beijing, January 2020
Naohiko Hatta / Reuters

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. Others were no more able to voice their concerns without fear of reprisal. 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, with the news of Li’s demise garnering more than 1.5 billion views on the social media platform Weibo. Hoping to allay the public’s anger, Beijing responded by promising to send a team from the CCP’s anti-corruption body to investigate the local government’s treatment of Li.

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. In the absence of reliable and timely information, Chinese people are left to organize on their own, creating maps that track the virus’ path and developing trusted platforms for citizens to access verified information. Online, some citizens engage in fierce debates over how to make sense of the contradictory information about the virus and the government’s response. 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. Understaffed and overwhelmed, the distribution centers have become yet another target of public ire for their inability to deliver the donations to hospitals and medical workers in desperate need of supplies.  

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; and even after finally accepting an offer of help from the WHO on January 28, it took Beijing nearly two weeks to make good on the deal. Such behavior threatens the welfare of not only Chinese citizens but also people around the world. 

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. For Xi, every layer of party bureaucracy provides a buffer between himself and the crisis on the ground. 

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, falling well within Xi’s current governance model. 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.” Unfortunately, the history of Chinese politics suggests that they are unlikely to get what they want. 

  • ELIZABETH ECONOMY is C. V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
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