Coronavirus outbreak poses challenge to Xi Jinping’s top-down rule
Response exposes disadvantages of Chinese president’s highly centralised administration Xi Jinping has centralised power more than any other Communist leader of the past few decades
When the mayor of Wuhan was asked on China’s state broadcaster why he had not disclosed the severity of the coronavirus outbreak in his city, he replied that his hands were tied by laws that required him to seek authorisation from Beijing. “I hope everyone can understand why there wasn’t timely disclosure,” Zhou Xianwang said in the unusually frank interview this week. “After I received information, I needed authorisation before making it public,” he explained. In a country that insists on political unity, the mayor’s interview stands as a rare example of stresses between central and local government breaking into the open, as China’s response to the virus becomes one of the biggest challenges to Xi Jinping’s presidency since he took power in 2012.
While the first cases of workers and shoppers contracting pneumonia in a market in the Chinese city emerged in early December, Beijing waited a month-and-a-half before issuing orders to curb the virus’s spread. Since then, 170 people have died and at least 7,711 have been infected. If there is a sense of any mishandling — and of course there will be mishandling — then local government officials are blamed Jeremy Brown, Simon Fraser University For China’s ruling political party, handling the fallout of deadly natural disasters, industrial accidents, mass riots and public health crises — known in party parlance as “sudden incidents” — is critical, according to Jeremy Brown, a Chinese history professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. “The party propaganda says it is great, glorious and correct . . . It’s not allowed to mishandle these things,” Mr Brown said. The Communist party line for responding to such accidents, a law written in the years following the deadly Sars outbreak and passed in 2007, holds local officials directly responsible for outbreaks. “If there is a sense of any mishandling — and of course there will be mishandling — then local government officials are blamed,” Mr Brown said.
So far, public anger has largely been directed at Wuhan and Hubei officials, especially after the provincial governor had to correct himself twice in a Sunday press conference. Internet commentators latched on to the mistakes as proof of incompetence. But some critics believe ultimate blame lies with Mr Xi. Wu Qiang, a former politics lecturer at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said that the local government in Wuhan did not have the power to act decisively because they were at the bottom of a chain of command that started with the “supreme leader” — a Mao-era title recently bestowed on Mr Xi. “It’s during a public health emergency like this that we really see the flaws of China’s political system and how the bureaucracy has weakened [under Xi Jinping’s rule],” said Mr Wu. “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.” Mr Xi has centralised power to a greater extent than any leader in decades in his quest to “rejuvenate” the nation.
Yet in recent months Mr Xi’s grand vision has had to contend with rolling protests in Hong Kong and a sweeping election victory for Taiwan’s independence-leaning president. Now he is in charge of managing a public health crisis that has disrupted Chinese society during the lunar new year, its paramount holiday. Unlike the dilemmas in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the coronavirus cannot be blamed on “hostile foreign forces”.
Mr Xi’s government is under pressure to show that it is not repeating the mistakes made during the 2003 Sars outbreak. Then, after months of cover-ups and under-reporting of cases, the newly appointed president Hu Jintao — struggling to wrestle leadership from the outgoing Jiang Zemin — had to launch a sweeping clean-up campaign, sacking the minister of health and the Beijing mayor. After Mr Zhou’s interview on Monday, commentators on China’s popular Weibo microblog began fondly reminiscing about another CCTV interview from the spring of 2003 when Wang Qishan was appointed Beijing mayor to help resolve the crisis. “Look at that resolute expression. Every sentence is about problem solving, no beating about the bush, no shadow boxing,” one commentator wrote of Mr Wang. “Only with this kind of leader can everything get better. Right now . . . we still feel crushed.”