Feb 4, 2020 - World

China's coronavirus response: Clamp down and shield Xi

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Xi Jinping is often described as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao, but he's not the face of Beijing's response to what could ultimately be the biggest test of his tenure thus far.

Why it matters: Xi has vowed that China will slay the "devil virus" that has spread from Wuhan and sown fear around the world. But the Communist Party seems intent to steer criticism of its slow initial response — and responsibility should its current steps prove inadequate — away from Xi.

  • Censors have allowed frustrated citizens to criticize local leaders in Wuhan, but they've scrambled to block anything targeting Xi directly, per the Washington Post.
  • State media also stopped stating that Xi "personally directed" Beijing's response, in favor of a message that it was "collectively" directed.
  • Premier Li Keqiang has been tasked with leading the response, and Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang has been targeted for much of the blame.
  • Unusually, Zhou has pushed back. He told state TV he lacked "authorization" to inform the public about the virus.

Flashback: In late December, as concern about a new SARS-like outbreak started to spread among medical professionals in Wuhan, local police reprimanded eight doctors for discussing it among themselves in leaked WeChat messages.

  • It was only three weeks later that China publicly acknowledged the danger and ordered a lockdown in Wuhan.
  • In a rare public split with local authorities, China's highest court said last week that the doctors should not have been punished.
“It might have been a fortunate thing if the public had believed the ‘rumors’ then and started to wear masks and carry out sanitization measures, and avoid the wild animal market."
— Supreme People’s Court

The centralization of power under Xi can paralyze local and regional officials, Wu Qiang, a former lecturer at Beijing's Tsinghua University, told the FT:

  • “Everyone — from the central government to the local government to the bureaucracy to the party to the military — was waiting for orders from the ‘supreme leader’ before acting."

Information is also even more tightly policed under Xi, but some savvy users recently circumvented the censors by posting online reviews of the HBO series "Chernobyl."

  • The implicit message: China’s leaders, like the Soviet Union's three decades earlier, endangered their people by hiding the truth.
  • But there's another lesson from Chernobyl. The Soviet system that spawned a global danger eventually contained it through a massive mobilization of resources and human sacrifice.
  • Zoom in: It took weeks for China to notify the public of the risks from the coronavirus but just 10 days to build an entirely new hospital to treat it, staffed by 1,400 medical personnel from the People’s Liberation Army.

China has been praised, including by the World Health Organization, for a response that experts say is far better than when SARS struck China in 2003.

  • But several factors that could have strengthened it, chief among them a flow of trustworthy information, are anathema to China's system, particularly under Xi.

Between the lines: One might have expected a strong public response from Xi to the current crisis, if only to justify the cult of personality around him.

  • But as the Economist points out, the constant praise for Xi's infinite wisdom can be a trap: "it leaves essentially no room for the idea that Mr Xi could make a serious mistake."

The bottom line: As the coronavirus crisis plays out, the strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese model will both be on display — even if Xi is not.

Go deeper: How the world is responding to the outbreak.

Go deeper