Xi Jinping has turned invisible during China's coronavirus epidemic, likely to cover his back in case things go badly wrong
China has framed its fight against the Wuhan coronavirus as a national struggle and a "people's war." But its leader, President Xi Jinping, has been nowhere near the front lines. His right hand man, Premier Li Keqiang, has been dispatched instead. Some Communist officials have sought to portray Xi as an invisible force guiding the fight from afar. But experts say Xi could be staying hidden to protect himself from public anger. Citizens have accused the government of suppressing information about the virus, and punishing people who did speak out.
Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
The outbreak of the deadly Wuhan coronavirus is sorely testing the Chinese Communist Party's grip on power. With more than 630 people dead, citizens have turned their anger on their rulers, accusing the government of covering up the epidemic in its early days. And the country's leader, President Xi Jinping, is nowhere to be found. Xi has issued multiple statements about the virus, characterizing the battle against the disease as a patriotic national struggle, but has made no public or on-camera appearances. He has called the fight against the coronavirus a "people's war" that requires "resolute actions," according to state media reports. Multiple officials have praised Xi's leadership in their speeches and meetings about the virus — but Xi has not been seen on the front lines once. Instead, he's sent his right hand man, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. In late January Li visited Wuhan, where the virus originated, to rally workers at a local hospital and at a construction site of a new hospital panic-built to accommodate more patients.
Wuhan's mayor, Zhou Xianwang, has offered himself up as a scapegoat, offering lat month to step down to placate locals' anger at the outbreak. Officials have been criticized for responding slowly, while punishing citizens for spreading "rumors" about the virus, and detaining journalists for covering it. (One such citizen who was censured for discussing the virus was Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan who warned his colleagues in late December of the outbreak. Local police later had him sign a letter admitting to "making false comments." He died of the coronavirus on Friday, sparking a public outpouring of grief.) In other words, Xi is staying as far as possible from China's biggest crisis in years. In a country where he is considered the sole leader and dominant presence, it's obvious.
Experts say he is likely trying to ensure he can keep his grip on power even if the coronavirus destroys citizens' faith in the Communist Party. "If the situation improves, he will take credit. If it worsens the blame will be pinned on Li Keqiang," Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told The Guardian. "The central government may be still in an active process in gauging when it's appropriate for Xi to appear to take the reins of the coronavirus fighting efforts," Rui Zhong, a China expert at the Wilson Center, told CNN's James Griffiths.
Bill Bishop, author of the Sinocism newsletter, suggested that seeing Xi wear a mask in public — as almost the entire country is now required to do — could weaken his image as leader. "One of the key political tasks of all party members is to protect the core, i.e. Xi Jinping, and while you would think the 'people's leader' would want to be seen close to the people, perhaps in this case the risk of him catching the virus may be too high, and images of him wearing a mask might be anathema to the propaganda wizards," he said. "That said, I do not know what is going on," Bishop continued. "I will bet that Xi and the other top leaders in the Party and the military understand that they either all hang together in this crisis or they may all hang separately, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin." Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London, told Al Jazeera that Xi handled the crisis "very badly." "You can't have him as the undisputed, unchallenged leader of China on one hand, and then say that in his watch, under his charge, the virus is being handled badly and it's got nothing to do with him," he said.
TIME’s new cover: The coronavirus outbreak could derail Xi Jinping’s dreams of a Chinese century https://t.co/f7CaZ74iv4 pic.twitter.com/sd7UOSyL8Q — TIME (@TIME) February 6, 2020
China's leadership appears to understand the gravity of the coronavirus and the challenge it presents to its power. The official account of a Monday meeting of the Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee — a body comprising the country's top leadership, chaired by Xi — said: "The outbreak is a major test of China's system and capacity for governance, and we must sum up the experience and draw a lesson from it." The same meeting also acknowledged "shortcomings and deficiencies exposed in the response to this epidemic," and pledged to improve the country's emergency management system — a rare admission of fault in an authoritarian nation.
But is it too late for the Communist Party to recoup its image? Earlier this week, many people on Chinese social media had already started drawing attention to Xi's absence, asking euphemistically: "Where is that person?" They posted images of former leaders responding to past crises on the ground, The New York Times reported, seeming to highlight the different approach taken by Xi. An unnamed person in Wuhan wrote on Weibo earlier this week: "I know before long this country will go back to being a peaceful, prosperous society. We will hear many people screaming how proud they are of its prosperity and power ... But after what I have witnessed, I refuse to watch the applause and commendation." It's a bold thing to say on Weibo, which often censors and removes content deemed politically sensitive, and in China, where people are frequently detained or disappeared. After the death of Li — the doctor who died after being censored for spreading word of the coronavirus — Weibo was filled with outpourings of grief and anger at the government, which included the phrase: "We want freedom of speech."
Read more: Chinese citizens are furious at the death of the whistleblower doctor censored for talking about the coronavirus. His mother said she couldn't even say goodbye. China's unprecedented quarantine of 11 million people in Wuhan is 2 weeks old. Here's what it's like in the isolated city. Mistrust, low pay, and a tradition of bribery in China's healthcare system have crippled efforts to contain the Wuhan coronavirus Everything you need to know about the coronavirus outbreak in 30 seconds Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Extremists turned a frog meme into a hate symbol, but Hong Kong protesters revived it as an emblem of hope
More like this (3)
The Red Cross in China seems like any other humanitarian group. But there is one crucial...The Red Cross in China seems like any other humanitarian group. But there is one crucial difference: it is funded and directed by the Chinese Communist Party.
Authorities in Beijing have wrapped up an investigation into the death of doctor and novel coronavirus...Authorities in Beijing have wrapped up an investigation into the death of doctor and novel coronavirus whistleblower Li Wenliang. The National Supervisory Commission said Thursday that investigators concluded local authorities in Wuhan mishandled the situation and followed "irregular" and "improper" law enforcement procedures. Li, one of eight doctors police reprimanded, was forced to sign a letter acknowledging that he was "making false comments." He died from the coronavirus in early February. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories. China has admitted that attempts to silence doctor and novel coronavirus whistleblower Li Wenliang were "improper," Chinese state media reported Thursday. Wrapping up an investigation into the young ophthalmologist's death, the National Supervisory Commission said investigators concluded that local authorities in Wuhan mishandled the situation and followed "irregular" and "improper" law enforcement procedures. Li sent a message to his former classmates from medical school on December 30, warning that a handful of patients in Wuhan had symptoms similar to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus and urging them to be cautious. Screenshots of Li's message went viral online. "I only wanted to remind my university classmates to be careful," he later told CNN. "When I saw them circulating online, I realized that it was out of my control and I would probably be punished." Li, one of eight doctors who police reprimanded, was forced to sign a letter acknowledging that he was "making false comments." The doctor checked into Wuhan Central Hospital on January 12 after revealing on Weibo that he had been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. He died on February 7. "During the fight against the novel coronavirus outbreak, Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at our hospital, was infected. Efforts to save him were ineffective. He died at 2:58 a.m. on Feb. 7. We deeply regret and mourn his death," Wuhan Central Hospital stated shortly after his death. As Li's passing sparked public outrage, China's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said it would send investigators to look into "issues raised by the people in connection with Dr. Li," Reuters reported. Putting the blame on local law enforcement, investigators advised that the police officers involved in reprimanding Li be punished and that the letter of admonition be withdrawn. The letter has been withdrawn. The US and China have sparred over who is to blame for the virus China has faced criticism, especially from the US, for its handling of the coronavirus, which has spread to over 200,000 people worldwide after first appearing in Wuhan. "Rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up," White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien said last week, adding, "It probably cost the world community two months to respond." China has been working hard to reshape the narrative on the coronavirus, with some officials arguing that the virus may not have originated in China and fueling unfounded speculation that it may have originated in the US. Last week, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman drew the ire of the US State Department and the Department of Defense when he wrote on Twitter that "it might be US Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan." In response, President Donald Trump has started calling the coronavirus the "Chinese virus." "China was putting out information, which was false, that our military gave this to them," he said at a recent press briefing. "Rather than have an argument, I said I have to call it where it came from, and it did come from China." China has expressed strong opposition to such comments. "Recent comments by US officials have smeared China," a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Thursday, adding, "The world should cooperate instead of insulting others and passing on responsibility." The US offered up a similar suggestion to China in response to suggestions that the US military might be responsible. The US is currently working to contain the virus, which has infected more than 9,400 people and resulted in at least 152 deaths domestically. Worldwide, more than 222,000 people have been infected and more than 9,000 have died. China has reported more than 81,000 cases, with 70,000 people recovered and 3,249 deaths.Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Here's how to survive an avalanche
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has sought to portray his nation’s efforts as an example for the...China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has sought to portray his nation’s efforts as an example for the world as infections spread globally.