No one had expected that the novel coronavirus pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan more than a month ago would quickly turn into the disaster of the century, spreading across China and to the world. The authorities first covered up the epidemic, created a flourishing scene of happiness and prosperity, missed the critical opportunity for prevention and control, and then, in a panic, implemented an extreme model of epidemic prevention, which includes the barbaric locking down of cities and homes, stopping at nothing. Wuhan has now become an endangered city, with people plunged into misery and crushed under the dual scourge of a pestilence and violent stability maintenance. Every kind of human tragedy is being played out every day.
Why is the Wuhan pneumonia epidemic developing so rapidly into a global catastrophe? The greatest cause is the political system of the one-party dictatorship of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The most responsible person is Xi Jinping, who is held up as the ultimate authority. This is a man-made disaster created by what he calls “bottom-line thinking”—stubborn adherence to one-party rule. In the eight years since Xi took power, he has gone completely against historical currents, implemented "high-tech totalitarianism," promoted a personality cult, abolished term limits, suppressed civil society, shut out all different voices, and responded unyieldingly to internal and external crises. This kind of retrogression in a "new era" has made people with knowledge inside and outside the CPC feel that some mishap—a big mishap—is going to happen. Who would have thought that this gray rhino would have turned out to be the pneumonia epidemic in Wuhan, triggering a general eruption of China's political, economic, and social crisis that has been accumulating over the years?
Under tremendous internal and external pressure, Xi Jinping's status as the “ultimate authority”—painstakingly-forged—began to shake. He himself was confused and made mistakes repeatedly. Xi first promoted Li Keqiang, the Premier, as the leader of the Central Leading Group on Responding to the Novel Coronavirus Disease Outbreak. In an uproar, the public saw this as an injustice to Li, pointing out that Xi, as the leader of many other Leading Groups, is now timidly and selfishly hiding behind Li, not daring to go to Wuhan himself. Many netizens remembered former Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao going to the front lines of disaster relief during their times. This embarrassed Xi tremendously: he did not want Li to be in the limelight, but was also afraid of being unfavorably compared with Jiang and Hu. He rushed to announce that he had "always been personally in command and in charge of deployment" for the Wuhan epidemic. After much ridicule from netizens, the authorities changed Xi’s positioning again and again, resulting in a farcical fight between the two state media outlets: Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television (CCTV).
Furthermore, the CPC officialdom, which had been intimidated by Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, is no longer so submissive, and has begun to toss back the blame. In an interview with CCTV, Mayor Zhou Xianwang of Wuhan said that the local government could only disclose the epidemic situation after being authorized. Zhou was very clever and did not point to Xi specifically. Instead, he took aim at the State Council. But on such a major event, how could the State Council have dared to make decisions on its own? Everyone understands that Xi, who has been “personally in command and in charge of deployment,” is the final decision-maker. Although people dared only to whisper, the epidemic in Wuhan was ferocious and had already gotten out of control. Public opinion surged inside and outside the Party, and anti-Xi forces took the opportunity to fan the flame, putting great pressure on Xi.
It is under these circumstances that “Qiushi,” the most influential CPC magazine, published Xi Jinping’s speech delivered at the meeting of the CPC Politburo Standing Committee on February 3—opening with a self-defense. This approach is unprecedented since Xi rose to power, and it happened because in facing such a huge disaster, Xi felt it necessary to provide his own account to the high-level Party leadership. Yet attempts to conceal his responsibility only served to highlight it and made things worse. The four critical junctures Xi mentioned in his speech precisely verified that he is the culprit who ordered a cover-up and missed opportunities. In his speech, Xi explained that he issued a “request” on January 7, but did not provide any concrete content of such a request–essentially an “edict without words.” Even during a Lunar New Year’ Eve gathering on January 23, Xi did not say one word about the Wuhan outbreak then went on to host a lavish banquet. During this time, the tone of the official propaganda was to “steadfastly maintain social stability, and ensure the people spend a stable and peaceful Lunar New Year.” It is precisely due to Xi’s orders that during the two weeks from January 7 to January 20, the authorities failed to promptly commence emergency response measures, missing the golden window of controlling the epidemic in development.
Xi’s speech did the opposite of what he tried to achieve: setting himself aflame rather than scrubbing himself clean, and the public believes even more firmly that he bears unquestionable responsibility for the spread of the virus. Xi then tried to acquit himself and found scapegoats among his subordinates. He replaced the leaders for Hubei Province and Wuhan City, and was ready to lay the blame on the Gao Fu, chief of the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC). But Gao would not go down easily. Just as the National Supervisory Commission issued news that Gao Fu had violated Party regulations, he made an emergency statement through Hong Kong media: that China CDC had made the relevant reporting to the central government at the beginning of January, and it was the central government’s fault in not publicly disclosing the situation of the outbreak. Moreover, Hua Sheng, economist and husband of China Writers’ Association chairwoman Tie Ning, spoke up for Gao and published an article titled “Gang Attack on Gao Fu: The Wrong Target.” The article revealed that the National Health Commission and local government did not delay in responding to the outbreak, but it is the central government’s “governance system and capability” that is at issue. Worried that the situation would get out of hand, the authorities took down the news of Gao’s violation from the National Supervisory Commission’s website. Media outlets, including in Guizhou, which had already reported the news, were forced to issue an apology and take the blame for a “misunderstanding.”
Watching the epidemic in Wuhan getting out of control, Xi Jinping panicked and realized the seriousness of the problem. So he made the decision himself and ordered the lockdown of Wuhan. He had no idea that China was no longer a “natural” economy as in the Mao era, nor did he possess the common sense to manage a modern economy or the ability to govern a modern nation. All he knows is to act precipitously, without knowing the consequences of the barbaric lockdown of cities. Such lockdowns fundamentally violate the economic order and interrupt distribution and logistics throughout China, and stop economic activities. Once the industrial chain has moved out, it can no longer come back, and the stoppage will lead to an eruption of an already precarious debt crisis, a consequence that the CPC could not afford to bear. Under the "one authority" system shaped by Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign, no one dares to tell the truth, letting him act arbitrarily. Also, what the superior loves, his subordinates are bound to love even more. So, local governments are doubling down, locking down cities, roads, and homes–highlighting the "Chinese characteristics" of the crisis response model.
The economic consequences of the hasty lockdown of cities have become immediately apparent. Without the normal supply of materials, Chinese society began to fall into chaos. The national economy and people's livelihood are struggling. Wuhan was the first to bear the brunt. Only then did Xi Jinping react. However, even more than the lives and suffering of the people, he is concerned about not letting the economy collapse, as that is directly linked to the security of the Chinese Communist regime. In the CPC official party-speak, political security comes first, economic security comes second, and then comes the safety of people's lives. For Xi, he does not care how many people die—that is just a number, albeit a false one. The authorities are skilled at falsifying statistics.
The Authorities can falsify outbreak statistics, but they cannot make the economy run unaffected. After experiencing the bitter results of the economic slowdown, Xi Jinping was very anxious. From one extreme to the other, he took a risk and ordered the localities to resume work as soon as possible and not to overdo the lockdown. He emphasized that it was time to test the capability of governments at all levels. Resuming work means risking cross-infection—a dilemma for local authorities. To this end, Xi made a big bet: full resumption of work without a large epidemic spread, thus avoiding an economic collapse. His wishful thinking is: if he wins the bet, it will highlight his firm command; if he loses the bet, the responsibility lies with the local government, as a result of their incapability to govern. Either way, he himself is sure to win.
While the higher authorities have policies, the localities have their counter-measures. The approach taken by local government officials is to obey overtly but disobey covertly. Under the "one-authority” system, officials must absolutely obey Xi Jinping's will; otherwise, they will lose their positions, or even go to jail in the worst cases. They know that the pressure of economic slowdown is on the central authorities. Even if the economy collapses, the law won’t punish the masses and they will not be held accountable. But at the same time, if the local epidemic situation worsens, they will be held accountable and punished. As a result, they did not move their troops and give priority to ensuring local security. They have no wish to distinguish themselves, only to not make mistakes. There are individual officials who believe that Xi's request is too unrealistic and have expressed public dissatisfaction. For example, the deputy head of Zhangwan District, Shiyan City, Hubei Province, which issued the first wartime control order in the country, stated publicly: "Resolutely resist the interest-driven impulse to resume work and resume the market." Since the forced resumption of work, many provinces across the country have experienced cluster infections of corporate employees and have had to close factories and isolate employees. People also expressed dissatisfaction with the stark contrast between CPC Central Committee's postponement of the Two Congresses and asking people to return to work. This double standard is a head-on blow to Xi Jinping.
At present, Xi Jinping is badly burned by the Wuhan epidemic and is facing the biggest political crisis since he took office. His strategy is to sacrifice Wuhan and save the country. On the one hand, the lockdown of houses, buildings, and streets in Wuhan constitutes a last-ditch defense, without regard to the lives of ordinary people, letting them live or die. On the other hand, the authorities are deliberately sending out good news of the epidemic prevention, striving to meet the WHO's 28-day standard of no new cases, persuading it to designate only Hubei Province as an epidemic area and not China as a whole, thereby restoring international flights to and from China. Xi is very clear that if the current economic stagnation and the international blockade were to continue, it would inevitably worsen the crisis-ridden Chinese economy and, in the wake of Sino-U.S. trade war, eventually lead to the entire economic collapse and imperil the CPC regime.
In light of this, Xi Jinping sent his own protégé Ying Yong, with public security and Politburo experience, to take control of the situation in Hubei. From the very beginning in his new position, Ying Yong has fully implemented Xi’s will, ruling with an iron fist. Instead of epidemic prevention, his focus has been on “uprising prevention,” in order to ensure political security. In Ying’s own words: We cannot let rumors run amuck while truth is still putting on its shoes. In conjunction with Internet censorship, violent stability maintenance measures are also employed, including appropriation of citizen property, lockdown of all small communities, and curfews—putting ordinary citizens into torturous environments, with incidents of suicide or family-wide deaths. Wuhan has become a living hell. A video that has viral on the Internet, showing a student inside a university campus in Wuhan shouting “Ying Yong, get out!” precisely reflects the anger of the people of Wuhan and Hubei.
For over a month, the battle for epidemic prevention under Xi Jinping’s “personal command” has blundered time and time again, and has brought upon a disaster on China and even the world. But he has remained stubborn, and announced in the conference of CPC, government, and military cadres that took place on February 23, 2019: “The Party is right! Yet, the virus is not under the Party’s command.” In latest developments, the epidemic has spread to the capital, Beijing, like a nemesis knocking on the door. It is directly threatening the safety of key political figures in Zhongnanhai, the compound of the high-level CPC officials, including Xi himself. The threat is forcing an escalation of response measures there equivalent to those in Wuhan, including reopening and expanding the Xiaotangshan Hospital, the hospital that was used to treat SARS patients 17 years earlier. As the situation worsens and the road gets bumpier, Xi is forced to admit in a Politburo meeting that this is indeed a crisis, and we are far from the turning point.
The Wuhan outbreak has had a crushing impact on China’s political environment, a large-scale humanitarian crisis has catalyzed conflicts both internal and external, and calls for ending one-party rule are piling higher and higher. A political situation that began as a stagnant pool is now seeing a surge of undercurrents, with Xi Jinping’s authority facing severe challenge, and his plans falling into chaos. Cracks have begun to appear within the Party.With tension and infighting between the central government and local authorities becoming more and more heated, we are seeing a situation in which political orders from the central authorities are not being obeyed locally. The various factions within the Party are restless are stirring, realigning their allegiance and loyalties, and a bloody battle for power is about to unfold. Can Xi Jinping make it through? Let us wait and see.