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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

UN poll: Most see climate change as global emergency amid pandemic

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (C) fronts a Fridays For Future protest at the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm in September. Photo: Jonathan Nacksrtrand/AFP via Getty Images

64% of people from around the world say climate change is a global emergency, a United Nations poll published Wednesday finds.

Why it matters: It's biggest global survey on climate change ever conducted, with some 1.2 million participants from 50 countries — including the U.S. where 65% of those surveyed view climate change as an emergency.

Collins helps contractor before pro-Susan PAC gets donation

Sen. Susan Collins during her reelection campaign. Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

A PAC backing Sen. Susan Collins in her high-stakes reelection campaign received $150,000 from an entity linked to the wife of a defense contractor whose firm Collins helped land a federal contract, new public records show.

Why it matters: The executive, Martin Kao of Honolulu, leaned heavily on his political connections to boost his business, federal prosecutors say in an ongoing criminal case against him. The donation linked to Kao was veiled until last week.

How cutting GOP corporate cash could backfire

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Companies pulling back on political donations, particularly to members of Congress who voted against certifying President Biden's election win, could inadvertently push Republicans to embrace their party's rightward fringe.

Why it matters: Scores of corporate PACs have paused, scaled back or entirely abandoned their political giving programs. While designed to distance those companies from events that coincided with this month's deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol, research suggests the moves could actually empower the far-right.

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