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.”
Are the US and China Decoupling? What are the Consequences for the Global Order?
Director of the Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations
Professor Emeritus, UC Berkeley.
Orville Schell is the Director of the Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations in New York City. He leads new programs on the environment, the media and foreign policy in an effort to promote more constructive dialogue between key Chinese and American leaders. He is a Fellow at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University, a Senior Fellow at the Annenberg School of Communications at USC and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of fifteen books, ten of them about China.
Co-sponsored by the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.
They took the best growth picture in a decade and put us in danger of recession.
Why are so many key global leaders pursuing so many stupid economic policies?
As recently as January 2018, the International Monetary Fund issued one of its most upbeat economic forecasts in recent years, extolling “broad based” growth, with “notable upside surprises.”
By last month, the fund had sliced its forecast for expansion this year to 3.2 percent — a significant falloff from the 3.9 percent projection reiterated just six months earlier — and had pronounced the economic picture “sluggish.” American investors are more concerned; the bond market is sounding its loudest recessionary alarm since April 2007.
The deterioration in the economic picture is not the consequence of irresponsible behavior by banks or a natural disaster or an unanticipated economic shock; it’s completely self-inflicted by major world leaders who have delivered almost universally poor economic stewardship.
The trade war initiated by President Trump sits firmly atop the list of bad policies. But Brexit has tipped Britain into economic contraction. With European governments unwilling to pursue structural reforms, the continent is barely growing. President Xi Jinping of China has focused on standing up to Mr. Trump and solidifying his own power. After a promising start reforming the economy, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has turned instead to oppressing his country’s Muslim minority.
None of this was necessary. As the January 2018 I.M.F. report indicated, the world economy was firing on all cylinders — “the broadest synchronized global growth upsurge since 2010” — as jobs were being added and inflation remained subdued.
Yes, Mr. Trump’s trade war and Brexit loomed, but amid hope that the former would prove empty and the latter would be softened.
Not so today.
Often against the recommendations of his more sensible advisers, Mr. Trump has implemented the country’s most protectionist actions since the 1930s. As a result, world trade has begun to fall for the first time in a decade, with noticeable economic impact. Last week, Goldman Sachs cut its already modest projections for fourth-quarter growth to 1.8 percent from 2 percent.
That’s a far cry from the “4, 5, 6” percent that Mr. Trump talked about just before his tax cut passed.Nor has that been Mr. Trump’s only misstep in economic policy. Instead of nurturing growth with important investments like a robust infrastructure program, Mr. Trump deployed his political capital to secure tax cuts that disproportionately favored business and the wealthy.
The “sugar high” they produced quickly wore off. And now, instead of developing better policies, the president has chosen to attack the Federal Reserve, whose independence is cherished by investors, business people and economists.
Boris Johnson, Britain’s new prime minister, abandoned his predecessor’s notion of a “soft Brexit” that would have maintained some ties with the European Union. Instead, he reaffirmed his promise that his country would leave the E.U. on Oct. 31 with or without a deal. The pound quickly fell to its lowest level against the dollar since 1985. (It has since recovered slightly.)
Then there’s China. By virtue of both its remarkably fast industrialization and its protectionist policies, the nation has long been a trade threat. But four years ago, the government issued its “Made in China 2025” economic manifesto, which put in writing China’s plans to attain a leadership position in key new sectors, including robotics, pharmaceuticals and aerospace.
The notion of China using its state power to take on important American and European industries instead of pursuing market reforms set off alarm bells across the political spectrum and provided a concrete underpinning for Mr. Trump’s trade confrontation.
Mr. Xi, rather than acknowledging China’s protectionist practices, has proved unwilling to accept a new trade agreement with effective enforcement provisions. That has raised doubts about whether China is seriously interested in reforming its unfair trade practices — keeping key markets fully or partially closed, using state subsidies to favor its companies, forcing American companies to transfer technology to China and the like.
Of course, at least in the world’s democracies, voters bear substantial responsibility for electing these inadequate leaders. The rise of populism as a reaction to disaffection about economic and social conditions has been well documented as a principal driving force.
Occasionally, good choices have been made, such as the election of President Emmanuel Macron of France. But even that has not led to progress; public support for Mr. Macron turned to opposition when he instituted the much needed policy changes that he promised.
Any chief executive officer who botched his or her job as badly as most of these leaders have would be fired. Let’s hope that voters come to that realization when given the chance.
It’s not about nuclear weapons, leverage with President Trump or the trade war.
.. Such vagueness should come as no surprise since obtaining a compromise from Mr. Kim never was the purpose of Mr. Xi’s trip. China’s president did not travel to North Korea to prove to Mr. Trump that only the Chinese government can broker a deal with Mr. Kim or to gain bargaining power in the trade dispute. In keeping with the long, tangled history of Chinese-North Korean relations, Mr. Xi traveled to Pyongyang to lure back into China’s fold what he sees as a difficult and wayward subordinate.
China may be North Korea’s largest trade partner and a formal defense-treaty ally, but tension and distrust have characterized relations between the two countries for decades. Strains reappeared in recent years after Mr. Kim tested nuclear weaponsand seemed to pull back from China while repositioning North Korea closer to the United States and South Korea. China, for its part, has gone along with the latest punishing international sanctions against North Korea.
Kim Il-sung resented the asymmetry and as a hedge maintained ties to the Soviet Union after the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s: He needed Mao, but didn’t think Mao could be trusted. Sure enough, come 1972, China welcomed President Richard Nixon in Beijing and began rapprochement with the United States, while North Korea remained violently opposed to the presence of the several tens of thousands of American forces stationed in South Korea.
After Mao’s death in 1976, the patterns of Chinese-North Korean diplomacy, like so much to do with China, changed. Mao’s successors were more interested in developing China’s economy than in big-power politics. In 1978, the leaders Hua Guofeng and then Deng Xiaoping made North Korea their first overseas destination. But this flurry of diplomacy belied the emergence of new tensions in the alliance: The two countries’ political systems and approaches to economics and foreign affairs began to diverge.
By the mid-1980s, China was barreling down the path of “reform and opening-up,” as the official line went, and it wanted a stable international order, thinking that this would be more conducive to its own growth. But Kim Il-sung saw China’s burgeoning links to capitalist economies as a betrayal of the socialist trading bloc, and his government is suspected of having ordered assassination attempts and terrorist attacks abroad.
Then came what the North Korean government considered to be an unforgivable act of treachery: In 1992, as Communist regimes were collapsing across Eurasia, the Chinese government normalized relations with South Korea, leaving Kim Il-sung diplomatically isolated and economically in the dust.
After Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, his son and successor Kim Jong-il asserted some measure of independence from China by not visiting for six years. He finally made a trip in 2000, soon before hosting the South Korean president for an unprecedented meeting and while preparing to bring President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang — or, only once it seemed like détente with South Korea and the United States was within grasp.
Several Chinese leaders, in turn, visited Pyongyang in the early 2000s, trying to project the image of a special relationship. Yet something was resolutely changing: The North Korean government was now doggedly pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, not only to defend itself against the threat of regime change suddenly posed by a hostile Bush administration, but also to emancipate itself from its unreliable and bossy ally.