Xi Virus

01.02.20 Publication:

Just over two years ago my former magazine, The Economist, put President Xi Jinping on its
cover and described him as “The world’s most powerful man”. He doesn’t look so powerful
now. Despite China having its most imperial-style leader since Mao Xedong, its citizens are
running scared of yet another respiratory disease transmitted from animals, two cases of
which have now been found in Rome, just as cases begin to pop up in other European
countries too. They would be right to ask why his government took so long to admit to the
existence of this new Coronavirus. Just as Chinese citizens feel vulnerable, so should
President Xi himself, not to the disease but to opposition.

This all-powerful, centralising leader, famous for his brutal crackdown on corruption
which began soon after he ascended to office in 2012, is in fact looking weak and ineffective
on many fronts. He has had a very bad 12 months. There is no evidence yet of any backlash
against him or of forces inside the Communist Party moving to replace him, but it may only
be a matter of time.

The list of his failures is growing. The unending pro-democracy protests in Hong
Kong have left him looking inflexible and lacking political finesse, especially as the protests
have their origin in his government’s crackdown on free speech in the former colony when it
began to kidnap and prosecute book publishers there. The landslide victory in Taiwan’s
presidential election on January 11 th for the anti-Beijing incumbent, Tsai Ing-Wen, showed
up the consequences of this failure for his country’s long-term ambition.

Meanwhile, emerging evidence of the massive concentration camps built under his
leadership in the Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang have turned international opinion on
China’s human rights record somewhat cold. Chinese leaders have in the past readily
ignored international opinion, but under President Xi China has been trying to expand its
global network of diplomatic friendships and support, as a rival to that of America. For both
the West and the Muslim world, the treatment of the Uighur people of Xinjiang shows the
reality of Chinese rule.

The long trade war between the United States and China has been suspended this
month by a ceasefire agreement. Neither side can be said to have won the trade conflict,
but China’s slowing economy shows more bruises than does America’s. In the end, the
ceasefire agreement may prove meaningless, but on the face of it President Xi’s team has
made many more concessions than has President Trump’s.

Such international setbacks tarnish the aura of President Xi’s much-vaunted “China
Dream”, a dream through which his country ascends to an equal status in global leadership
to that of the United States. But for a man who has changed the Chinese Communist Party’s
rules to make himself in effect president for life, they should be survivable. Domestic
failures and the anger of domestic public opinion, pose a greater danger.

That is what is now in prospect thanks to the growing death toll from the
Coronavirus, and from the disruption to domestic and international travel that it is now
likely to cause for several months. The government of Wuhan, the most affected city, is
slapping itself on the back for the speed with which it is building new hospitals to be able to
cope with the virus. But what people are liable to ask is why such emergency hospitals are                                                needed in the first place. And why did it take almost a month from when the first cases of
the new disease emerged before the city’s newspapers were authorised to report it?

Health crises happen. China, for all its power and wealth, remains a middle-income
country in which many old, unhygienic practices persist, most notably the close proximity of
people and animals. But when health crises do occur, the rapid flow of information, both to
decision-makers and to ordinary citizens, makes a huge difference. Communist China is a
state in which power is highly centralised, and President Xi has centralised that power even
more. Most likely, information about what was happening was slow to flow to those
authorised to take action about it. Yet again, the secretive nature of the Chinese Communist
system has made a bad situation worse.

In such a secretive, centralised system, an overt struggle for power is unlikely to be
seen. But during his eight years in office, President Xi will have made many enemies, who
are very likely now to start to exploit his current weakness. It will emerge slowly and fitfully.
But the worse the Coronavirus crisis gets, the faster will be the weakening and perhaps even
demise of President Xi Jinping. The world’s once most powerful man will find that even if
the Communist Party system he oversees is a great survivor, its president can be replaced.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay