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23 January 2023

Where is Xi Jinping?

Covid failures are keeping the Chinese leader away from Lunar New Year celebrations.

By Katie Stallard

During his decade in power to date, Xi Jinping has established a ritual of conducting an annual inspection tour before the Lunar New Year to show off his credentials as a man of the people. State media outlets run adoring coverage of the Chinese leader’s visits to humble family homes to share home-cooked dumplings and marvel at how living conditions have improved under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s rule. In 2014, Xi was lauded for “braving the cold” of Inner Mongolia to learn about the lives of forestry workers, while three years later, he called in at the home of an “impoverished villager” in Hebei province to help him “sort out his household budget”. You get the idea.

The new year is once again upon us. Yet in 2023, there were no intrepid mountain ascents and not a single dumpling was consumed (on camera, at least). Instead, Xi conducted his 2023 inspection tour by video link. Perhaps he has just adapted to remote work like the rest of us and prefers the efficiency of a quick video call, but it is more likely that the shift online is due to the extraordinary spread of Covid-19 infections across China following the abrupt reversal of his zero-Covid policy last month (which I wrote about here and here).

Xi insisted during his video calls that China had made “the right choice” in introducing strict controls for most of the first three years of the pandemic, and glossed over the sudden about-face as merely a “new phase” of the country’s Covid-19 response. “Tough challenges remain,” he briefly acknowledged during his virtual tour on 18 January, “but the light of hope is right in front of us. Perseverance means victory.” (Until November 2022, he had used this same formulation to stress the importance of sticking with the zero-Covid policy.)

The true scale of China’s outbreak is hard to measure as the government has dispensed with much of its testing infrastructure, and the official statistics are not credible. According to a study by Peking University, however, an estimated 900 million people had been infected with the virus by 11 January (or 64 per cent of the population). The figures are much worse for some areas, with 91 per cent of people in Gansu province in the north thought to have been infected, and 84 per cent of people in Yunnan in the south. The UK health data firm Airfinity estimates that as many as 36,000 people will die every day this week as Lunar New Year travel helps to spread the virus across the country, especially to rural areas where the public health system is poorly equipped to cope with surges. So perhaps it is no wonder Xi opted to stay in Beijing this year – rather than to confront the consequences of his policies for himself.

This article first appeared in the World Review newsletter. It comes out every Monday; subscribe here.

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[See also: Qin Gang: Who is China’s new foreign minister?]

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