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Xi Jinping and the Coronavirus

Xi Jinping and the Coronavirus
 François Godement
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - U.S. and Asia

"There should be more than one voice in a healthy society." This statement from Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor whose death unleashed a storm on Chinese social networks on the night of February 7, made the headline on Caixin’s international site (though not its Chinese version), the best Chinese media outlet for information about the epidemic. Internet users are reported to have clicked on his name 1.5 billion times in no more than 24 hours. The hashtag #IWantFreedomOfExpression was reportedly clicked on 3 million times before disappearing. On February 11, another hashtag denouncing propaganda encouraging the elderly to donate their pensions was seen 60 million times. The expression "this person" (nageren), a paraphrase referring to Xi Jinping, had to be banned from the web. Once again, intellectuals are signing petitions for freedom of expression.

China is no longer the country it was at the time of the contaminated blood cases or the SARS epidemic. The whole population uses social networks, and even more so while in voluntary – or imposed -  confinement. Controlling the social media entails a dilemma: it is difficult to stem a tidal wave unless the internet is shut down. This measure is technically possible and already put in place in Xinjiang, but would amount to a state of national siege in the present circumstances. Taking down a selective number of accounts – a measure which is akin to social death in today's China – cannot be extended beyond a certain point.

The regime will therefore have to temporarily adjust to a transformed balance of power between the apparatus and public opinion, which is proving its existence once again. But observers would do well not to jump to hasty conclusions about the loss of the Mandate of Heaven or about an open questioning of Xi.

When did it become known?

The truth – which, truthfully, none of us knows – is probably not straightforward. The central authorities’ delay in reacting to the information from Wuhan is obvious. The best investigation to date, from a Chinese source, is the one translated by China Change. The publication of a February 3 Xi Jinping speech to top leaders in fact proves he – and they - were informed of the dire situation on or before January 6. Added to this delay is local mismanagement. A banquet of 40,000 families held in the centre of Wuhan on January 18 and celebrated in the local press, will go down in history as an example of the incompetence of local action. The structure of the Chinese health system – hospitals and dispensaries rather than scattered general practitioners – did not help prevent the virus from spreading, quite the contrary. The human-to-human transmission, obvious from the cases of doctors in the first days of January (and even earlier from other patients), was only recognized on January 20. The World Health Organization, and with it rather uncurious foreign governments, chose to unquestionably believe what was in fact at least a two week cover-up. In the build-up to the New Year's festivities, the usual propaganda about the "people's leader" did not stop.

Whether it was a sycophant reflex or an underestimation, the one who is the commander-in-chief and who buried the expression "collective leadership" undoubtedly bears responsibility for it.

But between January 20 and 23, Xi Jinping made a 180-degree shift. He triggered unprecedented measures, while at the same time taking cover, quite literally and figuratively. A video from the Standing Committee of the Chinese Political Bureau shows the seven leaders talking, rather than listening to the first of them. Amid the crisis, a collective leadership has seemingly reappeared. Almost absent from the public eye, Xi Jinping triggered a general mobilization and radical measures to curb the epidemic, even calling it a "people's war" against "the devil". During his first public visit, on February 11, he showed attentiveness, modesty and promoted the precautionary principle: not shaking hands, and taking one's temperature.

The human-to-human transmission, obvious from the cases of doctors in the first days of January, was only recognized on January 20.

This general mobilization is indeed a totalitarian one, whose model is not so far from Xi Jinping's instructions for Xinjiang in 2014. It has reached new heights in Hubei, where the forced confinement of anyone with even mild symptoms has been ordered "without delay".

The limits of power

Let's ask ourselves a simple question: if France was forced to provide effective masks to a third of its population, to be renewed every day, and thermal scanners, rapid thermostats, tests and personal equipment in large numbers, would it be able to achieve this?


Let's confess our discomfort though. For wanting to be "Chairman of everything", is Xi responsible for everything? The effects of this new virus are poorly understood: the potential for the virus to spread seems to vary, estimates of mortality differ, the virus can establish itself without symptoms, and detection tests are proving insufficiently reliable. Shortages of prophylactic equipment experienced by China could occur anywhere, given the scale of the epidemic and its impact on individuals. Hubei is almost as densely populated as France, with highly concentrated urban centers. Let's ask ourselves a simple question: if France was forced to provide effective masks to a third of its population, to be renewed every day, and thermal scanners, rapid thermostats, tests and personal equipment in large numbers, would it be able to achieve this?

It is also contradictory to incriminate the authorities for their delay in initiating segregation measures and at the same time to challenge the usefulness of such measures. Of course, the limits of the Chinese crisis management are visible. But what other health and civil defense system would have done better, given the scale of the crisis? The official fight against the epidemic has an important ally: the population, which in cities seems to literally anticipate the containment measures as a precaution, and in the countryside is regaining ancestral reflexes of local blockade. To interpret these reactions only as a sign of totalitarian power is a mistake. In that respect, it is revealing that since February 2, Xi Jinping himself has changed his tone and warned against "excessive" reactions with great risks for the Chinese economy. Does he have reliable information about a possible peak in the epidemic – and a declining risk rate – or is he now fighting on two fronts? The international integration of the Chinese economy, much greater than in 2003, makes a temporary interruption of human and trade flows more serious. This is why Chinese diplomacy is working, for example, to get international flights resumed. Chinese digital giants persisted in wanting to attend the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, resulting in the exodus of their foreign counterparts from that meeting – and its cancellation.

China’s authoritarianism: resilient but not triumphant

In the absence of certainties about the direction and duration of the epidemic, let us attempt to draw a temporary conclusion. The harmful effects of an authoritarian system are concentrated in its first phase. Even so, it is not certain that between early December and January 5 – the date of the genome sequencing – other authorities would have been able to take the radical preventive measures that are retrospectively deemed necessary. The crucial phase was between January 5 and 20, when more precise information came to light. These two weeks were marked by the great New Year's migration, and the delay therefore had immense consequences. From January 23 onwards, however, the system's mobilization capabilities came to the fore, including the limitation of movements and the conversion of factories to the manufacture of masks and other equipment. If the epidemic is contained, this will appear to have been a successful mobilization.

In a second stage, the crisis will be retrospectively assessed. There is no doubt that local officials will be designated culprits. Social movements may also demand a real account of the victims of the epidemic, as is already the case for doctors. On a national scale, rather than a full-scale offensive against Xi Jinping, it may be the massive and open demonstrations by Chinese Internet users of their skepticism or anger that will leave their mark. But virtual protests do not make a physical movement or a structured organization. The triumphalism of the Xi Jinping era is shaken; the monopoly of power remains intact.


Copyright: Philip FONG / AFP

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