Can Xi Jinping survive the coronavirus crisis?
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Chinese President Xi Jinping has visited Wuhan for the first time since the city was identified as the epicentre of the coronavirus epidemic. Quarantine measures that sealed off Wuhan and central Hubei province appear to be paying off, with new infections dropping dramatically in recent weeks. But is it too soon for optimism?
“Without full victory, we can’t lightly claim success,” reads the headline in the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, on 10 March.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has tackled the coronavirus with slogans, endlessly repeated by the state-controlled media, and with leaders who visit affected places.
“If we save Wuhan, we save Hubei; by saving Hubei we save the whole country,” reads another slogan.
For several days, the number of reported coronavirus cases has been declining in Hubei, with the China National Health Commission reporting an all-time low of 19 new cases and 17 deaths – all confined to Hubei province.
Xi Jinping paid his first visit to Wuhan since the outbreak of the infection. State media show him standing in a reception hall wearing a blue-green face mask, having a video-conference with doctors in the newly-constructed Huoshenshan hospital. Another picture shows him standing outside and talking to a row of medical personnel, all wearing face masks – all at a distance of several meters from the president.
“He’s been under pressure from within the party and certainly the informal media in China, for not having gone before,” says Michael Dillon, author of China, a Modern History.
“We’ve seen figures for the number of cases and the number of deaths, flattening and declining, and it looks as if it Xi Jinping is taking the credit for the final success, they think they’ve had.
But also to encourage people to get back to work.
Over the past few weeks, Beijing has been trying increasingly to get the population back to work, not always successfully, as many people are wary of taking public transport.
Caixin Global, one of the more liberal news outlets, reported in an article called “Lights are on but no one’s working” that local authorities are boosting energy bills as proof that factories and offices under their supervision are actually functioning.
Testing the waters
Chinese authorities are walking on thin ice. Last week vice-premier and Politburo member Mme. Sun Chunlan visited Wuhan, but she was heckled by locals who screamed “fake, it’s all fake” from the windows of the apartments they were forced to stay in as they were under quarantine. Videos of the event, which could not be independently verified, were to be seen on social media.
Inhabitants claimed that teams had been activated to provide them with groceries only hours before Mme. Sun arrived.
“She was sent in first to test the waters before Xi Jinping arrived so that the authorities would know what to expect,” estimates Dillon.
“Her brief was specifically to investigate the neighbourhood committees, the local committees which are Communist Party dominated, which were supposed to have made the deliveries of supplies and all sorts of other things to all the people who had been affected and locked up in their apartment buildings since the middle of February,” he says.
In another attempt to mobilise the population, Beijing’s propaganda department launched a campaign aimed at showing Wuhan residents to be “grateful” to the Communist Party for the way they are dealing with the coronavirus crisis.
But the campaign soon turned sour when Weibo, WeChat and other Chinese social media were flooded with criticism – texts that censors deleted quickly, but which lived briefly to get the message out.
Beijing then turned to saying that people in Wuhan were ‘heroes’ who had made countless ‘sacrifices', lost friends and family, and, even if not affected by the virus, were forced to live in a confined place, in an off-limits ghost city. The line seems now to be followed by most high-level leaders visiting the city.
It is not clear how Xi Jinping's political profile will suffer as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
“He’s had various setbacks recently,” says Dillon, “despite creating this image of himself of a strong man,” his position may have been weakened in the eyes of other CCP leaders after he “did not act forcefully to resolve the Hong Kong crisis. And I think the coronavirus situation is going to be another blow,” he says.
“It is going to undermine his suggestion that he will want to remain as president for longer than the normal term,” says Dillon, referring to the fact that Xi Jinping managed to force CCP leadership into accepting to make him president-for-life, instead of stepping down after two five-year terms.
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