The public health and economic crisis associated with Covid-19 represents the biggest challenge that China’s president Xi Jinping has faced since assuming power in 2012. His unfinished-business tray was already full of other matters that also sit uncomfortably with the Chinese Communist Party’s craving for stability and control: wide-ranging Sino-US disputes; political challenges in Hong Kong and Taiwan; and tensions over the South China Sea and technology firm Huawei. Now many wonder whether the fallout from the pandemic could erode middle-class support for the Communist Party – and even imperil President Xi himself.
At the outset, Xi does not appear to be at any immediate risk. It is almost impossible to imagine any threat to him before the centenary of the founding of the Communist Party in 2021, which will be used to remind citizens, and the world – as all such celebrations are – of the party’s heroic and indispensable role in China’s development, past, present and future.
This said, there is merit in thinking about Xi’s status: his governance regime ensures that he is personally implicated in everything that goes right, and wrong. Pushback against the Chinese leadership abroad is quite transparent and patently rising, but domestic opposition is more intriguing because it is so opaque and hard to evaluate.
Chinese social media erupted with a unique fury in February, for example, when a 34 year-old Wuhan doctor, Li Wenliang, became a coronavirus victim. It emerged that he and colleagues had tried to engage in open discussion about a new, Sars-like virus, but that party officials had shut them down, accusing them of “rumour-mongering”.
This prompted a well-known jurist and law professor, Xu Zhangrun, previously sanctioned for criticising Xi, to publish a new essay urging people to speak out and “cast aside their fear”. Xu’s essay drew attention to the party’s cover-up and deception during the early months of the coronavirus outbreak, suggesting this had revealed the “rotten core of Chinese governance”.
Other intellectuals have charged variously that President Xi should take responsibility for the crisis and step down, accused the party of bungling its early response to the virus, and pointed out significant governance failures. Ren Zhiqiang, a former property tycoon and party official who has become a social media personality, recently published an essay memorably describing the president as not an Emperor without clothes, but a “clown with no clothes who was determined to play Emperor”. He is either under investigation or arrest.
Yet in general, Xi has been able to claw back the high ground. Winning the “people’s war against the coronavirus”, as he put it, and reopening the economy after a large double-digit economic contraction has allowed the government some space to crow – especially about the comparison between China and the “incompetent” US and “incapable” Europe.
Centralisation of power and authority have been key to China’s coronavirus response, including cranking up medical equipment supplies at home and overseas. Tools of social control using AI, the social credit system and new health-related apps have played a major role. A media clampdown has ensured the government’s principal messages are transmitted efficiently.
We in the West may recoil at these methods. After all, China’s centralisation of power and its preoccupation with stability were responsible for allowing a local epidemic to become a global pandemic. New technologies may have been a useful tool in organising coronavirus suppression, but they do not substitute for lack of openness and transparency, or the ignoring of China’s own scientists and medical professionals. There was no space for the horizontal or bottom-up feedback and information that are essential, especially at times of crisis.
These shortcomings are features of the system, underscoring a brittleness in Xi’s China that is not always apparent. They are shaping even now the government’s approach to the coronavirus. As the lockdowns end, factories, offices and some leisure facilities reopen, and public transportation resumes, Xi’s reputation hinges on avoiding a second wave of infections. So far, fortunately, there doesn’t appear to have been any surge in new hospital admissions (though the National Health Commission reported 108 new infections on 12 April, the highest number in five weeks). But these are early days.
Even if it is justified, reopening the economy in the wake of what were already rising structural headwinds of over-indebtedness, rapid ageing, stalled productivity and a trade war with the US, will not be easy. There will be no export boost for China from the rest of the world, and the small company sector may take a long time to recover. Woefully underestimated unemployment of just over 6 per cent in February will have soared by tens of millions of people, though this may not be reported. But it could approach 20 per cent before it starts to fall.
If the leadership cannot reignite elevated growth to fulfil the aspirations of the middle class, if unemployment becomes a persistent problem and if property prices finally fall, then China will be in hazardous territory.
For now, however, Xi looks reasonably secure. Yet he has enemies. More than one million party members have been incarcerated or punished by Xi’s extra-judicial anti-corruption campaign. They have families. Private sector firms, the core of the economy, employment and innovation, are being sidelined or discriminated against for political reasons. Top party officials always play cards close to their chests, but it is thought not all are happy with Xi’s approach to the US and much else.
Domestic opposition to Xi might crystallise more if only there were a united and orchestrated Western counter to China’s bid to shape global institutions and nations according to its own standards and values. At present, amid the coronavirus crisis, that looks like a distant prospect. We must hope for better as we heal, and with time.
George Magnus is the author of Red Flags: Why Xi’s China is in Jeopardy, and research associate at Oxford University’s China Centre and at SOAS