For Xi Jinping, the highest costs of the Coronavirus pandemic have yet to be counted, writes Robert Amsterdam
The coronavirus outbreak has become a test not only for China’s public health system but also for the viability of the authoritarian proposition in the face of disaster.
Though the World Health Organization had yet to formally designate the outbreak as a pandemic when Spear’s went to press, experts warn that unless containment is more successful the virus will reach sustained transmission in multiple countries and will join the ranks of diseases like HIV/Aids and Spanish influenza.
International aid providers on the ground in Hubei province – the centre of the outbreak – point to the persistent lack of reliable information as the biggest roadblock to an effective response. Essential questions such as the length of the incubation period for the virus are still unanswered.
The longer they stay that way, the more misinformation spreads, generating hysteria and wasting already limited resources and staff time. The Chinese government is notoriously tight-lipped, especially about occurrences that could communicate anything other than the regime’s absolute power and authority.
From the outset, it has been clear that President Xi Jinping would have preferred to silence reports of the disease, quashing the efforts of courageous whistleblowers such as Dr Li Wenliang, who was forced to sign a statement recanting his warnings and later died from the virus himself.
Dr Li’s death sparked a rare public outcry against the government’s handling of the crisis, prompting a shift from suppressing information to compelling citizens to inform on each other. Xi has declared a ‘people’s war’ against the virus, promising retribution against anyone who shirks their duties or disobeys government orders. This strategy entails the double benefit of redirecting public anger at local officials rather than the regime’s elite and providing Xi with cover to silence his critics.
Like much of the rhetoric surrounding Xi, the term ‘people’s war’ was borrowed from Chairman Mao Zhedong, founding father of the People’s Republic. The tactic, however, is a common one for authoritarian regimes. Historian Sheila Fitzpatrick highlights how both Tsarist and Stalinist Russia depended on the popular belief that local problems are the fault of local officials, cultivating the people’s trust by responding to their calls to punish the lower bureaucratic echelons for their failings and abuses.
Difficulties begin to arise for the regime either when the centre becomes too weak to control local bureaucracy or when public anger is no longer assuaged by firing a few corrupt or incompetent officials – bringing us back to Xi’s conundrum. His ‘people’s war’ does not appear to be quelling the indignation that the regime has failed to take appropriate action to protect its citizens.
Chinese state media recently published a speech that revealed the president knew about the dangers of the virus as early as January in a misfiring attempt to demonstrate his decisiveness. Instead, the speech drew more criticism that the government failed to warn the public of the threat.
Xi now faces enormous pressure to take control of the situation, and the carefully cultivated image echoing Chairman Mao has begun to work against him.
Over the past seven years, Xi has presented himself as a new leader for a new China, diverging from the cautious conservatism of his predecessors with uncharacteristically aggressive military, economic and political gambits. Unlike past presidents, he has positioned China’s authoritarian government as a model for other nations to follow.
Further missteps could threaten both China’s position in the world and the regime’s authority at home – expectations were high, and the consequences for failing to deliver could be far-reaching. ‘Black swan’ events like the coronavirus outbreak tend to expose the central weakness of authoritarian regimes: they cannot be seen to fail, even under circumstances that almost always include a few highly public failures.
The coronavirus may only be the beginning. According to an independent panel of WHO and World Bank experts, ‘There is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50-80 million people.’ With authoritarianism on the rise across the globe, the effects of a global pandemic could include widespread political chaos as authoritarian regimes struggle to muster the resilience necessary for taking on a public health crisis.
Moreover, black swan events are costly: the coronavirus outbreak has already worsened China’s economic slowdown, and the impact is hitting the local level first and hardest. For Xi Jinping, the highest costs have yet to be counted.