Xi’s Response to Virus Foreshadows an Even Tighter Grip on China

For all the lessons for President Xi Jinping to take away from China’s worst virus outbreak in modern history, he seems to have settled on one above all others: Centralized control works and more is needed.

Xi shared the conclusion in an unprecedented conference call with 170,000 officials Sunday — the closest the leader of the world’s longest-lasting communist regime has come to a fireside chat. In it, according to excerpts released by state-run media, he defended the ruling party’s judgment as “accurate” and argued that the outbreak “demonstrates the remarkable advantages of the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics.”

While the statement echoes countless others by Xi since he came to power more than seven years ago, China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has given the world a new understanding of what he means. In the past month, Xi’s government has barred tens of millions of citizens from work or travel, expanded the use of high-tech surveillance, installed loyalists to top provincial posts and expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters over an op-ed.

For those who have followed Xi’s rise, the moves are being viewed as a new chapter in a long-term effort to remake China’s political system, rather than a temporary emergency response to a public health threat. The government that emerges from the crisis will likely be more centralized, more authoritarian, and even more likely to rile Western liberals than before.

Leveraging The Crisis

“After previous crises, Beijing relaxed most ‘wartime’ crisis-response measures, allowing the overall political situation to return to the pre-crisis norm,” said Melanie Hart, director of China policy at the Center for American Progress, a U.S.-based non-partisan research group. “Xi is likely to move in the opposite direction, leveraging this crisis to further tighten the party’s hold over all elements of Chinese society.”

Since assuming leadership of the party in late 2012, Xi has eliminated potential rivals with an anti-corruption campaign that ensnared some 1.5 million officials, including a former public security czar and a former top general. He has abolished constitutional limits on his tenure as president, overseen mass arrests of rights lawyers and presided over a campaign detain more than a million ethnic Uighur Muslims in the far western region of Xinjiang.

The current outbreak has done much to make the hard-line approach more appealing as new weaknesses in the party’s grip are exposed. China has seen a rare outpouring of criticism over the government’s initial efforts to contain the disease in the central city of Wuhan, especially after a local doctor punished for sounding the alarm about the virus died from its effects earlier this month.

Fragile Economy

The fragility of the economy may be even more worrying to a party that prides itself on engineering China’s historic return to global economic might. Central and local government authorities are rushing to reopen factories amid concerns that the lockdown-induced slowdown couldjeopardize lofty development goals andpush millions of Chinese businesses toward collapse.

The push to get production lines rolling again showed Xi’s commitment to centralized decision-making to steer the party out of danger, despite China adding another 150 deaths to the disease’s local toll Monday. The moves came like the flip of a switch, with at least six provinces, including the hard-hit industrial powerhouse of Guangdong, moving to lower outbreak emergency levels.

At the same time, Chinese health officials released a raft of new data that appeared to affirm Xi’s claims that containment measures were working. The country reported just 11 new coronavirus cases outside of the epicenter of Hubei province, challenging expectations of a disease that has shown an ability to infect hundreds from small clusters in a matter of days.

That shift was also jarring a country where many millions have spent much of the past few weeks cooped up in their homes, monitored by apps and local officials who have been filmed smashing game tables or slapping citizens in scenes that recalled Mao Zedong’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution. Even as other regions eased restrictions Monday, citizens in central Beijing were adjusting to new outbreak measures imposed after a scare in the district holding the leadership compound of Zhongnanhai.

‘Obviously Lagging Behind’

While Xi has so far escaped widespread criticism for the response, the risk of blowback is increasing as he asserts himself. Earlier this month, he released a speech claiming responsibility for the controversial decision to lock down the outbreak’s epicenter, Hubei province, and installed a one-time subordinate, former Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong, to replace the region’s embattled leader.

Xi’s remarks Sunday signaled that the political fallout may just be beginning. “In this epidemic prevention-and-control work, the governance abilities and professional abilities of some leading cadres are obviously lagging behind, which must be paid great attention to,” Xi said.

Beijing is ever wary of public sentiment, especially when facing deteriorating economic conditions that threaten to fuel unemployment. The rare expulsion of the Wall Street Journal reporters by the foreign ministry, explained as retaliation for an op-ed that called China the “real sick man of Asia,” shows the sensitivity at the moment.

‘Increasingly Totalitarian’

“If the Chinese Foreign Ministry did not do this against the WSJ, the Chinese people would have buried the ministry with condemnation,” said Gao Zhikai, a former Chinese diplomat and translator to former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

Although the outbreak has showcased the party’s ability to marshal resources against the virus, it’s also revealed shortcomings such as the initial impulse to cover up the threat, said Danny Russel, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia who’s now a vice president of the Asia Society in New York. That’s left the party rushing to reestablish control and many wondering what China’s political scene will look like once the crisis subsides.

“The party is falling back on old habits — Mao-style mass mobilization, neighborhood policing, shifting the blame to local officials, rigorous censorship and ruthless punishment of outspoken critics,” Russel said. “I think we will see a weakened and self-absorbed China led by a defensive and increasingly totalitarian party.”

— With assistance by Peter Martin

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