More than any leader since Mao Zedong, Xi has centralized power around himself. He is the state, and while this gives him immense control, it also means that every crisis is a test of his leadership — Wuhan perhaps most of all, as the country looks to their leader for reassurance and confidence.
Despite the laudatory efforts of Chinese healthcare workers, however, and forceful statements from Beijing, allegations of an initial — and potentially even ongoing — cover-up continue to hang over the Wuhan outbreak.
This virus could have been China’s chance to exorcise the ghosts of SARS once and for all, instead it may have exposed that, for all the progress in the past 17 years, fundamental flaws remain in place when it comes to handling a crisis like this — ones that could result in far greater danger in future.
Crisis and cover-up
Xi’s gathering of power around himself also means the Wuhan crisis will be more of a test of his personal control of the Party and country — and of the highly-centralized system he’s put in place in recent years.
By a number of measures, China’s handling of the current crisis has been infinitely better than during SARS. Authorities in Wuhan alerted the public to the new virus in mid-December, soon after the first cases were identified. Xi’s statement four weeks later drastically boosted the response and publicized the risk.
But behind this outwardly competent handling of a crisis there are signs of a deeper problem.
One of the oldest cliches in Chinese politics is that “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away.” Despite being an intensely centralized state, provincial authorities do not always act as Beijing would prefer, nor do commandments from on high — to crack down on corruption or reign in pollution, or to increase transparency — always trickle down to the provinces.
While unconfirmed, there are numerous indications that officials in Wuhan downplayed the risks of the virus for several weeks, delaying proper action and potentially increasing its spread.
Worst possible timing
Revelations about the true spread and severity of the virus only came after the four-week travel period had got underway, and restrictions on people leaving Wuhan itself did not come into place until Thursday. One woman identified as having the virus in South Korea even told health officials there that she visited a doctor in Wuhan with symptoms — after screening measures were introduced — but got sent on her way and was able to leave the country.
The pervasive censorship of the Chinese press and internet undoubtedly played a role in this, as did Xi’s years-long crackdown on civil society groups, forcing people to rely on official accounts and the transparency of officials whose own motivations are often completely apposite.
China learned hard lessons in 2003 at a terrible cost. The legacy of SARS could be seen in the central government’s response this month, and that of Chinese scientists, both of which deserve a great deal of credit.
But Xi has also reversed gradual liberalization and opening up which occurred post-SARS, massively centralizing power within the Communist Party once again. At the same time, he has overseen a crackdown on the internet, the press and civil society, and an anti-corruption purge that, while it has turfed out plenty of bad apples, may also have left provincial officials more afraid of angering Beijing.
Xi is the closest China has had to an emperor since Mao, but like the old saying goes, he’s often far away. The Wuhan virus shows what happens when the country has to rely on information filtering up to the top for decisive action to be taken.
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