A fawning Xinhua article on Xi Jinping’s concern for citizens affected by natural disasters has become the latest piece of “low-level red, high-level black” propaganda. Intended to tout Xi’s steadfast leadership, it unintentionally highlighted just how belatedly he has visited disaster zones. The focus of the piece was Xi’s recent visit to Zhuozhou, an area of Hebei devastated by flooding in August of this year. Xi visited three months after the fact. The piece lauded Xi for his habit of post-disaster inspections, listing his 2014 trip to Yunnan, five months after an earthquake killed hundreds and injured thousands more; a 2020 visit to Anhui, one month after flooding displaced hundreds of thousands; and a 2021 visit to Shanxi, three months after storms destroyed tens of thousands of homes. A screenshot of the article with highlighted dates of Xi’s belated visits circulated widely on social media. One of the top comments read, “How timely!”
The 2023 Zhuozhou floods were already something of a political debacle for Xi Jinping. Two weeks before the floods, China’s Ministry of Water Resources published a volume of Xi Jinping’s “Key Pronouncements on the Management of Water Resources,” and organized study sessions on the work across central, provincial, and local water bureaus. In the aftermath of the flood, netizens mocked Xi’s habit of “pointing the way forward” on subjects he seems unlikely to have expertise in by offering sarcastic endorsements of his book: “Organizing a study session on ‘Xi Jinping Thought Regarding Water Management’ for world experts in flood control is a wonderful thing! He’s pointed the way forward for global flood control!”
The recent death of Li Keqiang, who served as Premier and was number two in the Party hierarchy below Xi from 2012-2022, has made Xi’s tardy disaster visits an even more sensitive topic. Li was often first on the scene after disasters. During the 2020 Anhui disaster, Xi Jinping infamously kept his shoes immaculate while visiting the Anhui flood zone, while Li Keqiang strode through the muck while inspecting the Chongqing floods. (Visiting disaster zones is part of the Premier’s role. Li’s predecessor, Wen Jiabao, was nicknamed the “King of the Silver Screen” for his performances at disaster sites.)
Despite propaganda hailing Xi as “the people’s leader,” his belated flood visits reveal how he keeps the people at arm’s length. When he does see them, they are often little more than bit players in his highly choreographed drama.