Xi Jinping has backed out of the spotlight as the country faces its worst crisis in years, reflecting the political risks he faces if efforts to contain the virus fail.
WUHAN, China — President Xi Jinping strode onstage before an adoring audience in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing less than three weeks ago, trumpeting his successes in steering China through a tumultuous year and promising “landmark” progress in 2020.
“Every single Chinese person, every member of the Chinese nation, should feel proud to live in this great era,” he declared to applause on the day before the Lunar New Year holiday. “Our progress will not be halted by any storms and tempests.”
Mr. Xi made no mention of a dangerous new coronavirus that had already taken tenacious hold in the country. As he spoke, the government was locking down Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, in a frantic attempt to stop the virus spreading from its epicenter.
The coronavirus epidemic, which has killed more than 800 people in China as of Sunday and sickened tens of thousands, comes as Mr. Xi has struggled with a host of other challenges: a slowing economy, huge protests in Hong Kong, an election in Taiwan that rebuffed Beijing and a protracted trade war with the United States.
Wuhan Coronavirus Map: Tracking the Spread of the Outbreak
The virus has sickened tens of thousands of people in China and a number of other countries.
Now, Mr. Xi faces an accelerating health crisis that is also a political one: a profound test of the authoritarian system he has built around himself over the past seven years. As the Chinese government struggles to contain the virus amid rising public discontent with its performance, the changes that Mr. Xi has ushered in could make it difficult for him to escape blame.
“It’s a big shock to the legitimacy of the ruling party. I think it could be only second to the June 4 incident of 1989. It’s that big,” said Rong Jian, a writer about politics in Beijing, referring to the armed crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters that year.
“There’s no doubt about his control over power,” he added, “but the manner of control and its consequences have hurt his legitimacy and reputation.”
Mr. Xi himself has recognized what is at stake, calling the outbreak “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance.”
Yet as China’s battle with the coronavirus intensified, Mr. Xi put the country’s No. 2 leader, Li Keqiang, in charge of a leadership group handling the emergency, effectively turning him into the public face of the government’s response. It was Mr. Li who traveled to Wuhan to visit doctors.
Mr. Xi, by contrast, receded from public view for several days. That was not without precedent, though it stood out in this crisis, after previous Chinese leaders had used times of disaster to try to show a more common touch. State television and newspapers almost always lead with fawning coverage of Mr. Xi’s every move.
That retreat from the spotlight, some analysts said, signaled an effort by Mr. Xi to insulate himself from a campaign that may falter and draw public ire. Yet Mr. Xi has consolidated power, sidelining or eliminating rivals, so there are few people left to blame when something goes wrong.
“Politically, I think he is discovering that having total dictatorial power has a downside, which is that when things go wrong or have a high risk of going wrong, then you also have to bear all the responsibility,” said Victor Shih, an associate professor at the University of California San Diego who studies Chinese politics.
Much of the country’s population has been told to stay at home, factories remain closed and airlines have cut service. Experts warn that the coronavirus could slam the economy if not swiftly contained.
The government is also having trouble controlling the narrative. Mr. Xi now faces unusually sharp public discontent that even China’s rigorous censorship apparatus has been unable to stifle entirely.
The death of an ophthalmologist in Wuhan, Dr. Li Wenliang, who was censured for warning his medical school classmates of the spread of a dangerous new disease in December, has unleashed a torrent of pent-up public grief and rage over the government’s handling of the crisis. Chinese academics have launched at least two petitions in the wake of Dr. Li’s death, each calling for freedom of speech.
State media still portray Mr. Xi as ultimately in control, and there’s no sign that he faces a serious challenge from within the party leadership. The crisis, though, has already tainted China’s image as an emerging superpower — efficient, stable and strong — that could eventually rival the United States.
How much the crisis might erode Mr. Xi’s political standing remains to be seen, but it could weaken his position in the longer run as he prepares to take a likely third term as Communist Party general secretary in 2022.
In 2018, Mr. Xi won approval to remove the constitutional limits on his term as the country’s president, making his plan for another five-year term seem all but certain.
If Mr. Xi comes out of this crisis politically insecure, the consequences are unpredictable. He may become more open to compromise within the party elite. Or he may double down on the imperious ways that have made him China’s most powerful leader in generations.
“Xi’s grip on power is not light,” said Jude Blanchette, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“While the ham-fisted response to this crisis undoubtedly adds a further blemish to Xi’s tenure in office,” Mr. Blanchette added, “the logistics of organizing a leadership challenge against him remain formidable.”
In recent days, despite a dearth of public appearances, state media have portrayed Mr. Xi as a tireless commander in chief. This week they began calling the government’s fight against the virus the “people’s war,” a phrase used in the official readout of Mr. Xi’s telephone call with President Trump on Friday.
There are increasing signs that the propaganda this time is proving less than persuasive.
The Lunar New Year reception in Beijing where Mr. Xi spoke became a source of popular anger, a symbol of a government slow to respond to the suffering in Wuhan. Mr. Xi and other leaders appear to have been caught off guard by the ferocity of the epidemic.
Senior officials would almost certainly have been informed of the emerging crisis by the time national health authorities told the World Health Organization on Dec. 31, but neither Mr. Xi nor other officials in Beijing informed the public.
Mr. Xi’s first acknowledgment of the epidemic came on Jan. 20, when brief instructions were issued under his name. His first public appearance after the lockdown of Wuhan on Jan. 23 came two days later, when he presided over a meeting of the Communist Party’s top body, the Politburo Standing Committee, which was shown at length on Chinese television. “We’re sure to be able to win in this battle,” he proclaimed.
Back then, the death toll was 106. As it rose, Mr. Xi allowed other officials to take on more visible roles. Mr. Xi’s only appearances have been meeting foreign visitors in the Great Hall of the People or presiding over Communist Party meetings.
On Jan. 28, Mr. Xi met with the executive director of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and told Dr. Tedros that he “personally directed” the government’s response. Later reports in state media omitted the phrase, saying instead that Mr. Xi’s government was “collectively directing” the response.
Since nothing about how Mr. Xi is portrayed in state media happens by accident, the tweak suggested a deliberate effort to emphasize shared responsibility.
Mr. Xi did not appear on official broadcasts again for a week — until a highly scripted meeting on Wednesday with the authoritarian leader of Cambodia, Hun Sen.
There is little evidence that Mr. Xi has given up power behind the scenes. Mr. Li, the premier in formal charge of the leadership group for the crisis, and other officials have said that they take their orders from Mr. Xi. The group is filled with officials who work closely under Mr. Xi, and its directives emphasize his authority.
“The way the epidemic is being handled now from the top just doesn’t fit with the argument that there’s been a clear shift toward more collective, consultative leadership,” said Holly Snape, a British Academy Fellow at the University of Glasgow who studies Chinese politics.
The scale of discontent and the potential challenges for Mr. Xi could be measured by repeated references online to the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Many of them came under the guise of viewer reviews of the popular television mini-series of the same name, which is still available for streaming inside China.
“In any era, any country, it’s the same. Cover everything up,” one reviewer wrote.
The Soviet Union of 1986, however, was a different country than China in 2020.
The Soviet state was foundering when Chernobyl happened, said Sergey Radchenko, a professor of international relations at Cardiff University in Wales who has written extensively on Soviet and Chinese politics.
“The Chinese authorities, by contrast, are demonstrating an ability to cope, a willingness to take unprecedented measures — logistical feats that may actually increase the regime’s legitimacy,” he added.
Mr. Radchenko compared Mr. Xi’s actions to those of previous leaders in moments of crisis: Mao Zedong after the Cultural Revolution or Deng Xiaoping after the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
“He’s doing what Mao and Deng would have done in similar circumstances: stepping back into the shadows while remaining firmly in charge.”
something that’s not about politics last
night was just so had it I can’t take it
I don’t want it I have read that expense
office all of them and the short stories
I can’t take it don’t want it but it’s
not like that was the first time do you
guys remember 2018 do you remember
Kansas the night of that primary it was
ridiculous or in 2016 California like
how long it took for the results like oh
it’s just where’s the way you and and
one of the things that made it even
worse was like I was tweeting about how
frustrated I was that people were just
sharing like like whatever they they
heard they don’t check it they don’t
Google it they just share it something
pops into their head it sounds good like
you have an inclination you want to
believe that something is true and so
people are gonna like and they’re gonna
retweet what says that they’re there
right like there was so much
misinformation and just people not
caring enough about the material to
actually Google it like like all the
stuff going around about the
like obviously there’s problems with the
app but like the people who were like
100% Budaj edge made the app I got it
and and look we have the disclosures
that were coming out and and responsible
people we’re talking about the
disclosures that they had paid that app
company okay now before you then take
that and say and thus he made the app
and presumably put in some sort of
backdoor where he could steal the
election do just a little bit of
googling like that company makes other
apps political canvassing apps things
for volunteers things that campaigns
would use and so the fact that he paid
money to that company does not mean that
he invested in the construction of that
app he could be buying one of the
political apps that they already have
and in fact it turns out that over the
past year I believe Klobuchar Biden and
Gillibrand all of them gave money to
this company presumably for one of the
political canvassing apps that they have
sold for some time you know how I found
out that stuff by googling for like 90
seconds it was super simple but I
noticed that when I started tweeting out
those I guess inconvenient truths nobody
cared like the people who were like no
no no Buddha judge definitely made the
app he stole this thing a hundred times
as many of retweets a hundred times as
many likes someone who’s like hey guys
you know pump the brakes first of all it
looks like Bernie’s Bernie’s still gonna
win second of all it looks like this
company actually has other apps nobody
cares about that stuff nobody’s
interested in that is really depressing
you know because media is a big thing
it’s not one thing it’s a lot of
different voices in a lot of different
forms but the fact that the people who
are trying to be accurate and reasonable
are always going to have to compete with
people who are just their thing is I’m
going to see what people want to hear
what they desperately want to believe is
true and I’m just gonna tell admit I’m
just gonna say that it’s true and nobody
ever tweets you know um you know I just
I want to apologize because I retweeted
something last night you know sort of in
the fervor of what was going on it turns
out that it was untrue I apologize if I
helped to misinform anyone in the future
I’m going to be
but more careful before I spread these
things and in particular I will not be
spreading the the people who were
spreading this misinformation I will be
more critical of them in particular
literally no one has ever said that you
spread things that are false nobody
cares nobody remembers even theirs the
incentives are all wrong on social media
and that is on top of all of the other
problems of last night that is so
incredibly frustrating I’m not having a
stroke down that’ll come later based on
diet have you seen the Saga comics I
have not just be reasonable like it’s
why I’m never gonna be a success
honestly there’s no there’s no reason
why would you why would you be
reasonable yeah nobody at nobody admits
that they’re wrong that’s where I don’t
know if you were watching the coverage
last night but I wanted to add on to
they were there every conversation they
were saying no one on TV in political
media ever pays any sort of price for
being dead wrong and I wanted to add on
say you’re right but it ain’t just TV
nobody in any form of media ever pays
any sort of price for being wrong not if
they were wrong in a way that reassured
their followers their audience that
things were gonna be okay who who ever
gets mad at a person for a horrible
prediction a prediction that when it was
made was obviously not true nobody cares
about that they want I want you to be
wrong in a way that makes me feel warm
and cozy I want you to tell me the sort
of things that are a verbal light
stroking of my head to make me feel a
little bit better that’s that’s all
really anyway the reason I talk about
this now is we were on night one we have
got a bunch of these nights to go and
unfortunately I don’t I don’t think that
any are gonna be as bad as Iowa but
there’s gonna be a lot of bad nights and
that’s really unfortunate okay everybody
I would love to talk longer but we do
have a show coming up and on it I’m
gonna be joined by Jordan you’ll as I am
every other Tuesday you know me also
were to talk about last night but also
author podcaster and founder of Vox Ezra
Klein is also going to be in studio to
talk about his book about polarization
which seems especially relevant this
both of last night and with the State of
the Union so should be an awesome
conversation there we’ve got so much
we’re gonna talk about I have read do
and I read the first one I wasn’t a huge
fan maybe I need to read more of them
but anyway thank you as always for
joining me this a little live live video
in ten minutes the full show starts so
definitely tune in there I’ll see you on
the other side
Gaslighting is an emotionally abusive tactic that makes the victim question their own sanity and perception of reality. In this important talk, Ariel Leve shares some of the life-saving strategies she adopted as a child to survive her mother’s gaslighting.
TEDArchive presents previously unpublished talks from TED conferences.
Enjoy this unedited talk by Ariel Leve.
Filmed at TEDNYC Rebirth 2017.