What Xi knew: pressure builds on China’s leader

What Xi knew: pressure builds on China’s leader, by Tom Mitchell.

“At first people were angry with the government for its handling of the epidemic,” says Deng Yuwen, a former editor at the Central Party School’s influential Study Times newspaper. “Then the virus spread across the world and death tolls were much higher elsewhere. People changed their minds partly because of what Xi did right, but more because of other countries’ failures.”

Jessica Chen Weiss, a China expert at Cornell University, agrees that “coronavirus appears to have strengthened Xi’s grasp on power, despite the shockwave that the outbreak initially sent through the system”.

“The struggles of other countries,” she adds, “have made it harder for liberals to argue democratisation is the solution to China’s ills.” …

Mr Unpopularity — outside China

However, Mr Xi still faces demands from overseas — and from a few voices at home — for a credible investigation into the chain of events that began in central China late last year and triggered the world’s biggest economic catastrophe since the Depression in the 1930s. Politicians as far apart as Australia, India, Europe and Brazil have pinned the blame for this on Mr Xi’s administration. When international travel resumes, it is hard to think of a western or even significant developing nation that would be willing to be the first to host a state visit by China’s president. …

The issue of what Mr Xi knew and when did he know it — especially with regards to human-to-human transmission of coronavirus — is a critical one for the ruling party. The question has the potential to undermine Beijing’s official narrative that Mr Xi masterminded a successful campaign to contain the outbreak within China, buying the rest of the world precious time that most countries, most notably the US, then squandered. …

“The small infection numbers outside Hubei are related to low testing rates,” says one Chinese doctor who asked not to be named. “We did not have many test sites outside Hubei. If we want to figure out the real infection rate, we need to conduct large-scale antibody testing to see how many people used to be infected.” …

The authoritarian way:

In late January the party’s ability to mobilise the entire nation stunned the world, beginning with its quarantine of Wuhan and then the rest of Hubei province, encompassing 60m people. …

Chinese officials argue that the implementation of such forceful measures, just one month after the first officially confirmed cases emerged in Wuhan, explains the country’s extremely low per capita infection and mortality rates. By contrast, the US response continues to vary depending on the approaches adopted by state governors, leading to multiple Wuhan-sized infection clusters and stubbornly high daily infection and fatality counts.

But even if the Chinese party-state ultimately led a successful containment effort, many critics counter that the system’s rigidity cost it an opportunity to ringfence the outbreak in Wuhan in early January.