The outbreak of the deadly Wuhan coronavirus is sorely testing the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power.
With more than 630 people dead, citizens have turned their anger on their rulers, accusing the government of covering up the epidemic in its early days.
And the country’s leader, President Xi Jinping, is nowhere to be found.
Xi has issued multiple statements about the virus, characterizing the battle against the disease as a patriotic national struggle, but has made no public or on-camera appearances.
He has called the fight against the coronavirus a “people’s war” that requires “resolute actions,” according to state media reports. Multipleofficials have praised Xi’s leadership in their speeches and meetings about the virus — but Xi has not been seen on the front lines once.
Instead, he’s sent his right hand man, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. In late January Li visited Wuhan, where the virus originated, to rally workers at a local hospital and at a construction site of a new hospital panic-built to accommodate more patients.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, (center) wears a mask while speaking to medical worker at the Jinyintan hospital in Wuhan on January 27.
(One such citizen who was censured for discussing the virus was Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan who warned his colleagues in late December of the outbreak. Local police later had him sign a letter admitting to “making false comments.” He died of the coronavirus on Friday, sparking a public outpouring of grief.)
In other words, Xi is staying as far as possible from China’s biggest crisis in years. In a country where he is considered the sole leader and dominant presence, it’s obvious.
Experts say he is likely trying to ensure he can keep his grip on power even if the coronavirus destroys citizens’ faith in the Communist Party.
“If the situation improves, he will take credit. If it worsens the blame will be pinned on Li Keqiang,” Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told The Guardian.
“The central government may be still in an active process in gauging when it’s appropriate for Xi to appear to take the reins of the coronavirus fighting efforts,” Rui Zhong, a China expert at the Wilson Center, told CNN’s James Griffiths.
Medical staff rally in Wuhan before starting work in a newly-built hospital.
Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Bill Bishop, author of the Sinocism newsletter, suggested that seeing Xi wear a mask in public — as almost the entire country is now required to do — could weaken his image as leader.
“One of the key political tasks of all party members is to protect the core, i.e. Xi Jinping, and while you would think the ‘people’s leader’ would want to be seen close to the people, perhaps in this case the risk of him catching the virus may be too high, and images of him wearing a mask might be anathema to the propaganda wizards,” he said.
“That said, I do not know what is going on,” Bishop continued. “I will bet that Xi and the other top leaders in the Party and the military understand that they either all hang together in this crisis or they may all hang separately, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin.”
Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London, told Al Jazeera that Xi handled the crisis “very badly.”
“You can’t have him as the undisputed, unchallenged leader of China on one hand, and then say that in his watch, under his charge, the virus is being handled badly and it’s got nothing to do with him,” he said.
China’s leadership appears to understand the gravity of the coronavirus and the challenge it presents to its power.
The official account of a Monday meeting of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee — a body comprising the country’s top leadership, chaired by Xi — said: “The outbreak is a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance, and we must sum up the experience and draw a lesson from it.”
The same meeting also acknowledged “shortcomings and deficiencies exposed in the response to this epidemic,” and pledged to improve the country’s emergency management system — a rare admission of fault in an authoritarian nation.
Members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including Xi and Li Keqiang (fourth and fifth from left) at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People in October 2017.
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
But is it too late for the Communist Party to recoup its image?
Earlier this week, many people on Chinese social media had already started drawing attention to Xi’s absence, asking euphemistically: “Where is that person?”
They posted images of former leaders responding to past crises on the ground, The New York Times reported, seeming to highlight the different approach taken by Xi.
An unnamed person in Wuhan wrote on Weibo earlier this week: “I know before long this country will go back to being a peaceful, prosperous society. We will hear many people screaming how proud they are of its prosperity and power … But after what I have witnessed, I refuse to watch the applause and commendation.”
It’s a bold thing to say on Weibo, which often censors and removes content deemed politically sensitive, and in China, where people are frequently detained or disappeared.