Xi Jinping’s Wuhan Visit Completes Return to Center Stage

On Tuesday, Xi Jinping visited Wuhan, epicenter of the now global COVID-19 pandemic, in a show of official confidence that the worst of the outbreak in China has passed. For years, official rhetoric has emphasized Xi’s position at the “core” of Party and government, but in the uncertain early days of the outbreak’s handling, he was conspicuously absent. Tuesday’s visit marked the culmination of his transition back to center stage as steps to control the disease gained traction. From Chun Han Wong and Jonathan Cheng at The Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Xi stopped by a local hospital and residential community, where he praised Hubei and Wuhan for achieving “important interim results” in containing the coronavirus and voiced optimism that victory was near at hand. Even so, he urged continued vigilance and all-out efforts to defeat the epidemic, describing the task as “arduous and onerous.”

By visiting the outbreak’s center now, China political watchers say, Mr. Xi is effectively declaring an initial victory in overcoming the epidemic, so as to claim credit for directing the crisis response and deflect criticism of his administration’s perceived slowness in first dealing with the outbreak.

“Xi Jinping is there to pick peaches” and enjoy the fruits of other people’s labor, said Zhang Lifan, an independent historian in Beijing. “Xi’s hope is to turn an initial setback into victory.”

[…] “This is a special inspection, at a special location, at a special time that highlights the special attention the general secretary is paying to a heroic city, its heroic people, and to this battle against the epidemic,” Xinhua said in a commentary, referring to Mr. Xi by one of his titles. “The dawning of victory isn’t far away.” [Source]

A Xinhua report on Xi’s leadership of the “anti-virus war” said that “Xi demanded more understanding and tolerance for people in Hubei and Wuhan if some vent their feelings for long time under self-quarantine.” Steps were taken to avoid any such venting during his visit to a Wuhan apartment complex, however: The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield reported that “people posted photos on social media showing police officers sitting on the balconies, saying two officers had been dispatched to each apartment to ensure residents did not yell at Xi. The images could not be independently verified. […] Instead, the main news bulletin on state broadcaster CCTV showed people calling ‘Hello, Chairman!’ and waving from their windows at him […], and a smiling Xi saying ‘Hello, everyone’ back.”

These measures followed an incident last week on an earlier visit to Wuhan by Vice Premier Sun Chunlan. From Lily Kuo at The Guardian:

Vice-premier Sun Chunlan, one of the most senior government officials to visit the centre of the coronavirus outbreak, toured a residential community in Wuhan’s Qingshan district on Thursday. According to state media, Sun was inspecting the operations of the neighbourhood committee, meant to make checks on residents each day and distribute necessities like medicine, food and fresh vegetables.

Videos posted online showed Sun and a delegation walking along the grounds while residents appeared to shout from their apartment windows, “fake, fake,” “it’s all fake,” as well as “we protest”. Some could be heard yelling, “formalism,” a term that has employed frequently recently to criticise ineffective measures taken by government representatives for the sake of appearances.

[…] In an unusual turn of events, on Friday various Chinese state media outlets reported the videos showing public discontent. Such videos are frequently censored from Chinese social media and government-run outlets have been focused on stories of “positive energy” to boost morale in the fight against the coronavirus.

[…] Observers say state media may be trying to co-opt discussion of the videos ,which circulated widely online, and provide their own narrative of events. The incident also provides the central government an opportunity to show it responding to public sentiment, after a wave of public anger over the suppression of early warnings of the virus. [Source]

On Sunday, WSJ’s Chun Han Wong examined the re-centering of Xi in the official narrative:

As Chinese authorities voiced confidence they were containing the country’s coronavirus outbreak, the official Xinhua News Agency meticulously chronicled President Xi Jinping’s personal battle against the epidemic—from visiting front-line medical workers to fielding calls from foreign leaders.

In a glowing article published this past week, the state-run media organization concluded that Mr. Xi’s dedication proved he has a “pure heart like a newborn’s that always puts the people as his number one priority.”

[…] “Since the epidemic began, the party center has given it a high degree of attention,” Mr. Xi told 170,000 officials on a nationwide teleconference late last month, described by state media as the largest in the party’s history. “I’ve paid constant attention to epidemic prevention and control efforts, issuing verbal instructions and comments every day.”

[…] Senior officials have voiced fulsome support for Mr. Xi. The Chinese leader has served as a “sea-stabilizing holy cudgel” during the crisis, Li Zhanshu, chief of China’s national legislature, told lawmakers late last month, referring to a magical weapon from the classic Chinese novel “Journey to the West.” [Source]

Xi’s peerless central role, which initially demanded that he be isolated from possible blame, now requires not only that he is placed at the center of hard-won successes, but also that he is retroactively shown to have been there all along. In mid-February, influential Party journal Qiushi published a speech by Xi which pushed the date of his earliest involvement back nearly two weeks into early January. There are signs of other material being backdated to showcase his leadership throughout the crisis. Reporting guidelines tweeted by the head of news at the Shanghai-based Sixth Tone suggest that rewriting Xi’s part in the coronavirus response was a high priority:

At The New York Times last week, Steven Lee Myers reported on international aspects of Beijing’s efforts to change the narrative:

“They are trying very hard to fight both the diplomatic damage the virus has caused and the domestic damage this has done to Xi Jinping,” said Xiao Qiang, a researcher at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and editor of China Digital Times.

Now that the rate of new infections and deaths in China has slowed, officials are trying to portray the country as the world’s leader in the fight against the coronavirus. The Central Propaganda Department is even publishing a book — in several languages — praising Mr. Xi’s role in guiding the country through the crisis, however premature a declaration of victory might seem at this point.

At a briefing in Beijing on Thursday, officials highlighted the assistance China is now providing other countries. That includes sending coronavirus test kits to Pakistan, Japan, Iran and other countries. China’s Red Cross flew a team of volunteer experts to Iran, which has been particularly hard hit. It also chartered a flight to bring back Chinese citizens from Iran — a step it harshly criticized the United States for doing from Wuhan in January.

[…] Rush Doshi, director of the China Strategy Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said that China’s effort to rewrite the narrative — by donating test kits and sending other aid — could pay off.

“If they provide public goods, this is going a long away, and these narratives are meant to help to accelerate that process,” he said. “And I think they may be successful at it if they are really going to show in a big way they are on the ground in a place like Iran, making a difference.” [Source]

In his column at Deutsche Welle, Chang Ping described triumphalist official rhetoric as part of a well-established pattern. From China Change’s translation:

In the eyes of the Chinese government, disasters are never a bad thing. The People’s Daily website published a commentary today (March 4) with the lines “the harsh wind tests the strength of the grass, calamity tests the loyalty of a minister” and “It is in a turbulent world that a hero distinguishes himself.” These are another way of saying the Communist Party’s favorite phrase: “Our country thrives in disasters.” (“多难兴邦”)

To be precise, it is the Party that thrives in disasters. The commentary said: “From the flood rescue efforts in 1998, to the SARS battle in 2003 and the earthquake relief work in 2008, these great struggles, one after another, have taught us that the Chinese Communist Party is the backbone of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation.”

I say the commentator at the People’s Daily is being too modest. Since the establishment of the CCP regime in 1949, from the anti-rightist movement, to the Great Leap Forward, from the Cultural Revolution and the Tangshan earthquake to the June 4 incident, which calamity failed to end up being a “glorious victory” achieved by the Party’s leadership? Whether it is a natural disaster that the CCP delays or bungles the early response to, or a man-made tragedy it causes, they can, and will, always be used to prove that the Party is the backbone of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation. [Source]

At The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, University of California, Merced’s Haifeng Huang assessed the domestic success of the propaganda push:

Here’s what Chinese official media did not cover: whether China’s authoritarian system induced officials to prioritize social order and pleasing higher-ups over openly confronting an inconvenient disease; how the early warning system failed to alert Beijing health authorities; the role of the top leadership in the initial delays in responding; and how the lack of free flow of information, including the silencing of doctors like Li Wenliang, contributed to the spread of the virus. China’s state media treats the epidemic as a purely natural disaster, but how the government deals with a disaster can reveal its quality.

[…] The inadequacy of responses in a few foreign countries has fueled gloating among some Chinese Internet users — and the comment that these countries do not even know how to “copy homework,” or learn from China’s successful experiences. Much of this discussion seemed to originate from private commentators, but major state media agencies like Xinhua also reposted social media essays lamenting perceived foreign failures and arguing that the world should thank China for its sacrifices. [See more from James Palmer at Foreign Policy]

[…] Social media conversations and group chats I have observed, as well as my personal communications with people inside China, suggest many Chinese people are proud of the government’s capacity to suppress the virus and trust what it is doing. There is also anger, but it is directed more toward local governments in Wuhan municipality and Hubei province, where the epidemic originated, than toward China’s political system or the central government. People in China have not paid as much attention to the question of why the epidemic initially got out of control. [Source]

Like the earlier handling of whistleblower Li Wenliang and the execution of the disease control itself, the forging of the triumphalist narrative has seen several missteps and U-turns. One example is the fierce backlash against Wuhan Party Secretary Wang Zhonglin’s call for “gratitude education among the citizens of the whole city, so that they thank the General Secretary [Xi Jinping], thank the Chinese Communist Party, heed the Party, walk with the Party, and create strong positive energy.”

At China Media Project, which has provided detailed coverage of official messaging throughout the outbreak, David Bandurski translated a subsequent directive from the State Council Information Office, noting that its contents “suggest this has been a full-blown public opinion crisis for the Party, and that the wound was self-inflicted.”

Today Changjiang Daily’s report on “gratitude education” invited raging public opinion (舆情汹通), the intensity of the public opinion response being similar to that following the death of a certain doctor. Through communications between provincial and city leaders, and after a request to central authorities it was agreed: Changjiang Daily, [the WeChat account] Wuhan China (武汉发布) and Wuhan Television will remove the article at its source, and no other media will be permitted to follow-up with reports or commentaries!

This matter is a classic case of public opinion created by our own work (自身工作), in particular an insufficiently strict hold at Changjiang Daily, and[we] must draw lessons from this, and reflect back seriously.

On this matter, Minister [Huang] Kunming (黄坤明) [of the Central Propaganda Department] especially made a phone call to stress: This matter fully shows that with Wuhan now having been shut down for more than 40 days, the lives of the ordinary people have been affected to such an extent that there is resentment and anger, and all reports must consider the feelings of the people of Wuhan. This matter also sounds a warning to all of our media, that they must definitely consider the particular situation facing Wuhan and the feelings of the people. [Source]

Later comments from provincial Party Secretary Ying Yong and Xi himself have pointedly redirected thanks toward the people of Wuhan.

On February 27, Bandurski noted another misstep: the launch of a new book, “A Battle Against Epidemic: China Combatting Covid-19 in 2020,” which was later suspended.

According to the Xinhua News Agency release on the book, it “collectively reflects General Secretary Xi Jinping’s commitment to the people, his sense of mission, his far-reaching strategic vision and outstanding leadership as the leader of a major power.”

[… T]his was a scheme that must have developed at the top of China’s propaganda apparatus at least a number of weeks ago, possibly from shortly after Xi commented publicly for the first time on the coronavirus epidemic.

[…] Here is one image making the rounds today on WeChat, in which the cover of A Battle Against Epidemic is hemmed in on all sides by Chinese banners that read:

Shameless to the extreme.

Painting fine pictures on the bones of the dead.

Distilling essence from human blood. [Source]

Two weeks previously, Bandurski highlighted an article shared on WeChat by the National Radio and Television Administration, entitled “Following the Example of General Secretary Xi Jinping, For a Loyal and Heroic Struggle for Early Victory.” “The post was removed within 24 hours,” he noted: “the account’s praise for Xi Jinping appears to have gone too far. It was very likely regarded as an embarrassing case of ‘high sarcasm,’ or gaojihei (高级黑), damning through the act of praise.” Despite the appearance of terms like “sea-stabilizing holy cudgel” with a “pure heart like a newborn’s” this week, Fordham University’s Carl Minzner suggested signs of apparent restraint elsewhere:

Also at China Media Project, at the end of January, Qian Gang tracked how the outbreak had derailed a planned propaganda agenda on the country’s achievement of “moderate wealth” and Xi’s closeness to the people, both embodied in a series of reports entitled “The General Secretary Came to My Home.” The insistent presence of these stories on the People’s Daily front page, Qian wrote weeks later, appeared increasingly out of touch and “stands as a historical record of propaganda ugliness that cannot be whitewashed away.” In another post, Wendy Zhou suggested, based on frequency of key terms associated with Xi in People’s Daily, that the outbreak may have temporarily sidelined some aspects of his ideological project. “Given the broad shift in public opinion and public concerns in the midst of the crisis,” she concluded, “it would be unseemly to boast too loudly about Xi Jinping’s theoretical contributions or focus overly on political indoctrination and such empty talk. It is time, at least for now, for Xi Jinping to come back down to earth.”

The tone surrounding Xi’s visit seems likely to reinforce predictions that the political trends seen so far during his tenure will only continue and intensify in the longer term. From Cissy Zhou at South China Morning Post, for example:

China’s responses in the first few months of the outbreak resulted in some criticism of Xi, and multiple signs have pointed to negative economic growth in the first quarter. But, after the crisis fades, “it’s very unlikely that there’s any significant or overt political challenge to Xi Jinping,” said Jude Blanchette, who holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

“This is a leader who has consolidated extraordinary amounts of power … his value proposition is that he will be able to fix China’s governance system to be able to deal with black-swan events like the one we’re dealing with now and other challenges China is facing.”

He added: “I think where we should be spending most of our time looking is what will the new shape of the party state look like in response to or as a result of its actions to deal with the coronavirus.”

Blanchette predicted a stronger Communist Party in the wake of the outbreak because such an outcome “is a cyclical and structural feature of crises internationally – that the state expands to deal with the crisis and then remains at a new expanded level even after the crisis fades away”. [Source]

Similarly, from Bloomberg News late last month:

For all the lessons for President Xi Jinping to take away from China’s worst virus outbreak in modern history, he seems to have settled on one above all others: Centralized control works and more is needed.

[…] In the past month, Xi’s government has barred tens of millions of citizens from work or travel, expanded the use of high-tech surveillance, installed loyalists to top provincial posts and expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters over an op-ed.

For those who have followed Xi’s rise, the moves are being viewed as a new chapter in a long-term effort to remake China’s political system, rather than a temporary emergency response to a public health threat. The government that emerges from the crisis will likely be more centralized, more authoritarian, and even more likely to rile Western liberals than before.

“After previous crises, Beijing relaxed most ‘wartime’ crisis-response measures, allowing the overall political situation to return to the pre-crisis norm,” said Melanie Hart, director of China policy at the Center for American Progress, a U.S.-based non-partisan research group. “Xi is likely to move in the opposite direction, leveraging this crisis to further tighten the party’s hold over all elements of Chinese society.” [Source]

And from Lily Kuo at The Guardian this week:

State authorities, in addition to locking down entire cities, have implemented a myriad of security measures in the name of containing the coronavirus outbreak. From top officials to local community workers, those enforcing the rules repeat the same refrain: this is an “extraordinary time” feichang shiqi, requiring extraordinary measures.

As the number of new infections in China falls, having infected more than 80,000 and killed more than 3,000, residents and observers question how much of these new measures are here to stay.

[…] “It’s mission creep,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch. According to Wang, the virus is likely to be a catalyst for a further expansion of the surveillance regime, as major events like the 2008 Olympics held in Beijing or the Shanghai Expo in 2010 were. “The techniques of mass surveillance became more permanent after these events,” she said.

“With the coronavirus outbreak the idea of risk scoring and restrictions on movement quickly became reality,” she said. “Over time we see more and more intrusive use of technology and less ability of people to push back.” [Source]


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