Coronavirus could bring political change to China – but authoritarianism won’t be weakened in the short term

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the quarantined city of Wuhan on Tuesday for the first time since the coronavirus was identified there, sending a message that Beijing has the situation under control.

His visit comes as China recorded its lowest number of infections, just 19 on Tuesday, all in Wuhan apart from two who had arrived from overseas.

China has seen 80,754 confirmed cases, 3,136 of whom have died.

The visit was  Xi’s first trip to the city since the outbreak began.

According to state media,  Xi arrived in Wuhan on Tuesday to inspect epidemic prevention and control work in the province.

Wuhan and its province, Hubei, have been locked down in order to prevent the spread of the disease. The president visited a community in the city currently in self-quarantine.

During his visit, Xi declared that the spread of the disease had been “basically curbed” in Hubei province and Wuhan.

Initial success has been made in stabilising the situation and turning the tide in Hubei and Wuhan,” he said.

Since ascending to the top jobs in China’s political and military hierarchy in 2012, Xi has moved to make himself the strongest leader since Mao Zedong, the founder of this Communist state. He unleashed an anti-corruption campaign to purge rivals and presided over an Orwellian expansion of the surveillance state.

Anna Fifield, a  Kiwi   journalist who now is Beijing bureau  chief of the  Washington Post,  in a  recent dispatch  wrote  that the party’s botched response to the virus has pierced Xi’s armour in many ways. His admission that he knew about the outbreak by January 7, two weeks before China activated its emergency response, directly implicated Xi in the initial coverup.

The outbreak has derailed his political and economic agenda by forcing the party to postpone its showcase annual meetings, where cadres rubber-stamp Xi’s plans for the year. Economists say the shutdown of swathes of the country will hammer growth.

More concerning for Xi will be the criticism that has burst into the open, notably with the death of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang.

Dissent on Chinese social media is quickly erased by the party’s censors, but Chinese-language discussion forums hosted overseas are full of comments about Xi being “gutless” for not going to Wuhan, displaying “tedious” leadership and being an “autocrat.”

Two prominent intellectuals who have criticised him have disappeared, apparently detained by security services.

Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar and public intellectual, went into hiding before publishing an essay in which he called Xi “clueless and hopeless” and urged him to step down. Still, he was detained shortly after.

Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun is thought to be under house arrest after he  wrote that the coronavirus epidemic

“ … has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance; the fragile and vacuous heart of the jittering edifice of state has thereby shown up as never before.”

Chinese journalists who have tried to do independent reporting have vanished, most recently Li Zehua, an anchor for the state broadcaster who resigned so he could be a “citizen reporter” in Wuhan.

The party has been battling to hide its missteps.

“With the failure of the central authority to provide even very basic public health information to the public, I think there’s now a lot more skepticism of the party,” said Victor  Shih of the University of California at San Diego.

All of this has led to predictions — including from Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass — that the coronavirus could bring about a change in the way the party operates and may compel it to be more transparent and responsive to the population.

Some columnists have characterized the epidemic as China’s “Chernobyl moment,” a tipping point that precipitates the end of Communist rule akin to the nuclear disaster that hastened the demise of the Soviet Union.

But the opposite is likely true, at least in the near term.

“The novel coronavirus has exposed flaws in Xi’s autocracy: the control on information, the absence of civil society and the lack of transparency have all had human costs,” said Natasha Kassam a former Australian diplomat in China who is now at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney think tank.

But rather than prompt a rethink in Beijing, Xi and China’s leaders are more likely to double down on the most repressive elements of the regime.

With numbers of new cases dropping and the World Health Organisation praising their response, China’s leaders are likely to feel vindicated, Kassam said.

In addition to effectively putting tens of millions of people under house arrest to contain the outbreak, China’s authorities have harnessed the tools of their techno-authoritarian surveillance state in the name of stopping the epidemic.

 

2 thoughts on “Coronavirus could bring political change to China – but authoritarianism won’t be weakened in the short term

  1. Yep at the end of all this they lefty socialists will be blaming Trump for the virus but I guess he had to get China’s growth under control some how….:)

    Like

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