Skip to content Skip to navigation

In the Wake of the Pandemic: Enemies on All Sides

April 16, 2020

In just over two months, under Xi Jinping’s personal command and direction, the novel coronavirus that initially emerged in Wuhan has spun out of control to become a once-in-a-century pandemic event that has caused the untimely deaths of hundreds of thousands of people around the world.[1] To fight the pandemic, nations have been forced to declare states of emergency and issue stay-at-home orders, causing everyday life to come to a standstill and inflicting terrible damage to their economies as stock markets tumble, businesses shutter, and unemployment rates skyrocket. The entire world has entered an unprecedented state of crisis.

Although no one can possibly predict when and in what way this will all end, what is certain is that this pandemic will become a turning point in history—a shock on the scale of a world war in terms of the way it has vastly changed the way people live, work, and communicate. This in turn is forcing a rearrangement of entire political and economic landscapes and a reorganization of the global industry chains; and the abandonment of “Sinicization” is likely unavoidable. At the same time, after weathering these calamities, nations are drawing lessons from their bitter experiences and reflecting on the one-track globalization—specifically, the pitfalls of solely pursuing economic globalization while turning a blind eye to globalization of political systems. Calls to condemn the original culprit for this chaos are growing louder by the day, brewing an imminent international storm.

As the origin of this pandemic, China is at the heart of this storm. Putting aside for the moment lingering suspicions about the origin of the novel coronavirus itself (on which point the intentional concealment on the part of the Chinese authorities has already given rise to international outcry), from the outset of the epidemic in Wuhan, the authorities have hidden and smothered relevant information, and then lowered and falsely reported the death toll, misled public opinion, and deceived the international community. Together, all of this ultimately culminated in the disaster we see before us. Chinese official numbers of infected and deceased have been far lower than those coming from more transparent nations in Europe and America. Even China’s ally, Iran, refused to believe the figures; in the words of the Iranian health ministry spokesman, China’s data were as “a bitter joke.”[2]

From Xi Jinping’s perspective, all of this simply rubs salt into an open wound. He now faces pressure on both fronts: Having been battered by domestic efforts to combat the outbreak, he must now confront growing international cries for accountability. All of this leaves a strong sense of crisis. Xi knows well that other countries are, for the moment, overwhelmed, but that once the pandemic passes, China will face even greater troubles, and that he must find a quick way to break out of this international siege. A few days ago, in his address to the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China, he stated:  “thought and work preparations must be made to face changes in the external environment for the long term.”[3] Xi’s countermeasures address both external and internal conditions: First, stabilize the country by building up the appearance of success in combating the virus, and fan the flames of nationalism to divert the population’s attention; second, take a preemptive strike on the international stage by tossing the blame and muddying the waters.

“Stabilizing the country” has involved the launch of an aggressive propaganda campaign[4] aggrandizing China’s fight against the virus. This propaganda takes the successful fight against the epidemic in Wuhan as a central pillar, and, by making sentimental triumph out of tragedy, seeks to unify the hearts of the people. A month ago, authorities began a particularly ambitious propaganda effort aimed at convincing the general public that there were zero new cases in Hubei Province.[5]

Reportedly, the Secretary of the Wuhan Municipal Party Committee, Wang Zhonglin, issued an internal order: No diagnosis, no treatment, no reports—and if there were new cases, local authorities would be held responsible. It is likely that because officials have been keeping a tight watch, no hospitals have dared to publicly disclose that they were confirming or treating any new cases.

At present, there are any number of asymptomatic or re-infected patients in Wuhan. Authorities have attempted to be externally open but internally remained quite close-mouthed, and have not told the population anything approaching the truth. But a Twitter post in early April cited health workers in Hubei privately warning that the Wuhan epidemic was if anything even more dangerous than before,[6] and that every day, hospitals were confirming new cases and could do little more than urge the infected not to go out unless absolutely necessary. Even the official state media organ, the People’s Daily, has admitted that “zero new cases does not mean zero risk.”[7] The Wuhan Municipal Traffic Management Department also tacitly reminded citizens: “This does not mean prevention and control measures have been lifted; nor does it mean warnings about the epidemic have been lifted.”[8]

China’s strategy to toss the blame on the international stage has also been carefully crafted. First, respiratory disease expert Zhong Nanshan came forward with the following statement: “The epidemic first appeared in China, [but] it did not necessarily originate there.”[9] Soon thereafter, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian, taking up the role of a “wolf warrior,” pointed the finger at the United States.[10] In the ensuring diplomatic row, the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, came forward to close the show—playing  the “good cop” by walking back Zhao’s statement.[11]  Meanwhile, in the mainland, official media continue to pump out disinformation and fan the flames of nationalism and portray China as a model country in terms of its work to combat the epidemic.

It can be predicted that, after the pandemic passes, many of the affected countries will seek to hold China accountable, or press claims for compensation. This seems likely to become a future conflict on the international stage. Reflecting on the likelihood of this, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, recently stated[12], “Once we have finally turned the page on this epidemic, there must be a time to look back fully to understand how such a disease emerged and spread its devastation so quickly across the globe.” At present, private individuals have filed suits to pursue claims in several countries including the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia, India, Myanmar, and South Africa. Other countries are of course very much interested in the results of these claims. The amount of compensation would likely be truly astronomical. Of course, China will not simply bow its head and admit fault; inevitably, there will be a pitched struggle. To shirk responsibility, China will be making use of hard and soft tactics alike. Already China has embarked on a course of “coronavirus diplomacy,” gifting other countries with medical equipment and protective gear, buying goodwill with small gestures and gifts in an attempt to talk down the nations now encircling it.

This outcome of this contest on the international stage will be decided by the strength of facts. In this arena, China is alone, and vastly outmatched. Although it would never admit fault, or let it become an unsolved mystery, and never pay a penny in compensation, countries have other ways of retaliating—economic sanctions, withdrawing investments, relocating supply chains, and otherwise cutting ties from China. For the Chinese economy, already hit hard by the epidemic, this would be doubly disastrous. In fact, this kind of decoupling already began with the U.S.-China trade war and is now picking up speed.

Since the explosion of the pandemic, China’s economy has all but stopped, with the waves of small and medium enterprise shutdowns and mass unemployment sweeping across the whole country. With the pandemic also inflicting heavy losses in the U.S. and countries across Europe, Chinese firms in Guangdong, Shandong, Jiangsu, and other provinces along the coast that rely on foreign trade are receiving no new orders. With exports accounting for 20 percent of China’s GDP, there is no doubt that this is an unmitigated disaster and has greatly undercut authorities’ efforts to force a get-back-to-work across the country. The depression of brick-and-mortar industries has also thrown the financial industry into difficulty, with reports of runs on several local banks.[13] Food shortages have also occurred, along with skyrocketing food prices, panic buying, and hoarding. Officials recently convened experts and scholars at  meetings behind closed doors to discuss the economic situation.[14] The general outlook is pessimistic, and it is thought that it is likely this year’s GDP growth will be negative.

Of course, this situation makes Xi Jinping incredibly nervous. The collapse of the economy will shake the foundations of CPC rule, an unbearable burden. To restore the economy as soon as possible, the authorities have created the appearance of complete success in their efforts to combat the virus and overall safe and soundness. However, the public health situation remains grim. A second wave of outbreak has struck Wuhan, Guangzhou, Heilongjiang, and other locations. Of these, the situation in Guangzhou is particularly serious, with a complete shutdown of the Sanyuanli area. This has been a headache for the authorities. For the sake of saving the economy, they have to make a gamble again and continue to conceal the true numbers of new cases from foreign eyes, attempting to resume work while fighting the epidemic and risking a resurgence of the infection.

The pandemic has greatly intensified various contradictions in China and abroad, and the once-silent civil rights defense activities have returned to the streets in different places. However, what worries Xi Jinping the most are the opposition waves that have emerged within the Party. After showing prowess through his anti-corruption campaign, he has managed to install himself as the almighty within the Party. But the delay in handling the epidemic in Wuhan has led to a major disaster, the bankruptcy of his political authority, and the pressure of accounting himself to the Party. Various factions inside the Party that had been initially frightened off by the anti-corruption campaign are now raring to act, just waiting for the right moment. Ren Zhiqiang’s article is emblematic of this challenge.

In order to evade responsibility, Xi Jinping has tried to turn a funeral into a wedding. In late February, he held a video conference attended by 170,000 people from the Party, government, and military nationwide.[15] There was not one word of self-criticism, only self-praise and aggrandizement. Reacting to the spectacle, Ren Zhiqiang, an heir to political power and a real estate tycoon, wrote an article to criticize Xi and pressed for an investigation into the responsibility for the delay in managing the epidemic.[16] Most embarrassing for Xi was this line in the article referring to him as "a stark naked clown insisting  on being an emperor.”[17]

Xi Jinping was enraged, not only because Ren Zhiqiang publicly humiliated him, but also because Ren's criticism hit a sore point. Xi knows very well that he has contributed to a disaster, otherwise he would not have made an exception in showing up at the Qingming Festival with the members of Central Committee Standing Committee.[18] However, facing a counterattack by the opposition forces within the Party, Xi has no escape route. Despite knowing that it was unpopular, he accused Ren Zhiqiang of "politicizing the epidemic " to set an example for others. This is due not only to Xi ’s arbitrary, dictatorial, and vengeful trait, but also to the CPC’s political culture and unspoken rules—the top leaders cannot admit their mistakes or show weakness, at the risk of losing everything. Just as with Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, there was only ever one way for all of this to end.

The pandemic has severely impacted China's politics, and seriously questioned and challenged Xi’s “almighty” status that he has so painstakingly crafted. This was unimaginable before the outbreak in Wuhan. The image of Xi as a "wise leader" no longer exists, with his true form—one of muddle-headedness and incompetence—now exposed. After his treatment of Ren Zhiqiang, he has even lost the support of the Party and the people. Although Xi is still in power, he knows that he is unpopular, and is therefore in more danger than ever. Like Mao before him, what Xi now fears most is a coup. In his old age, Mao was terribly afraid all the time, daring to trust no one—not even his most trusted aides. China is now facing unprecedented difficulties domestically and abroad, and anything can happen. Next year is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China. Only heaven knows whether Xi Jinping will be around to celebrate this milestone.

Error | Human Rights in China 中国人权 | HRIC


The website encountered an unexpected error. Please try again later.