Source: Financial Times
The annual session of China’s parliament was supposed to have been a triumphant occasion for President Xi Jinping, marking the halfway point of his second term with the path clear for him to begin an unprecedented third term in 2023. Instead on Friday he will take centre stage at the Great Hall of the People in the midst of a global pandemic that erupted in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, knowing that his government now faces the most daunting set of economic and financial challenges since Deng Xiaoping began to steer the country out of the wreckage of the cultural revolution in 1979.

On top of that, Mr Xi must also manage a growing international controversy over his government’s handling of the earliest stages of the pandemic — in particular about what he knew, what he did and what he didn’t do during a critical 13-day period preceding China’s acknowledgment on January 20 that coronavirus was highly contagious.

This year’s National People’s Congress had to be delayed by almost three months because of the pandemic. Normally lasting a fortnight and attracting thousands of reporters, it will instead be a truncated seven-day sitting and off-limits to most of the hundreds of media organisations that normally cover it.

With the Chinese Communist party marking its centenary in 2021, this year’s NPC was supposed to set up two central goals for the anniversary. The party decreed in 2010 that the world’s second-largest economy would double in size by the end of this year, and also set 2020 as the deadline for the formal elimination of “absolute poverty” across the country. Instead, the party’s dream of doubling the size of the economy now lies in tatters after output fell almost 7 per cent in the first quarter — the first official year-on-year contraction since 1976.

Minxin Pei, a China specialist at Claremont McKenna College in California, says it is not yet clear whether “the Chinese economy can recover after this shock, especially after the expected restructuring of global supply chains and another escalation in US-China tensions”. “These issues,” Prof Pei adds, “will have a real impact on the livelihoods of ordinary Chinese people.” As international political and economic pressure builds on Mr Xi, the one silver lining for him is the widely held view within China that he has at least steadied the ship.

After largely disappearing from view in late January and early February, he finally showed up on the front lines of the battle against coronavirus on February 10 and has since led the most effective long-term containment plan among the world’s most populous nations.

Late last month, the Beijing municipal government lifted an edict requiring people to wear face masks outside. Couples are dancing in public parks again. Mr Xi’s cause has been helped by the chaotic response to coronavirus in the US and parts of Europe. US president Donald Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have also aggressively pushed an unproven theory that the virus might have leaked accidentally from a government lab in Wuhan, alienating American allies and raising nationalist ire in China.

Even public anger that erupted over government attempts to silence Li Wenliang, a doctor who alerted friends about the virus and later died of it, was largely directed at local officials rather than Mr Xi or other senior leaders in Beijing. Li has been posthumously lionised by the central government as a national martyr in the battle against the “devil virus”. “At first people were angry with the government for its handling of the epidemic,” says Deng Yuwen, a former editor at the Central Party School’s influential Study Times newspaper. “Then the virus spread across the world and death tolls were much higher elsewhere.

People changed their minds partly because of what Xi did right, but more because of other countries’ failures.” Jessica Chen Weiss, a China expert at Cornell University, agrees that “coronavirus appears to have strengthened Xi’s grasp on power, despite the shockwave that the outbreak initially sent through the system”.

“The struggles of other countries,” she adds, “have made it harder for liberals to argue democratisation is the solution to China’s ills.” However, Mr Xi still faces demands from overseas — and from a few voices at home — for a credible investigation into the chain of events that began in central China late last year and triggered the world’s biggest economic catastrophe since the Depression in the 1930s. Politicians as far apart as Australia, India, Europe and Brazil have pinned the blame for this on Mr Xi’s administration. When international travel resumes, it is hard to think of a western or even significant developing nation that would be willing to be the first to host a state visit by China’s president.

In a video address to the World Health Organization’s annual assembly on Monday, Mr Xi said China would back an “objective and impartial” WHO review, but only after the crisis passes. He will also insist that any official WHO examination does not focus solely on China. “It’s impossible to conduct an independent investigation under China’s political system,” says one veteran Chinese investigative journalist, who asked not to be named. “There is no way independent experts can access information from the government.”

Gaps in the narrative

The issue of what Mr Xi knew and when did he know it — especially with regards to human-to-human transmission of coronavirus — is a critical one for the ruling party.

The question has the potential to undermine Beijing’s official narrative that Mr Xi masterminded a successful campaign to contain the outbreak within China, buying the rest of the world precious time that most countries, most notably the US, then squandered. “They’ve got their version of history out there now and they will defend that against all comers,” says Christopher Johnson, a former CIA China analyst now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The evidence so far about Mr Xi’s role is inconclusive but leaves some difficult gaps for the party to explain. According to party documents obtained by the Associated Press last month, national health officials warned on January 14 in an internal meeting that China faced a “severe and complex public health event”, adding that “the risk of transmission and spread is high”.

But Beijing did not make a public announcement until January 20. The officials had been alarmed by Thailand’s discovery a day earlier of the first reported coronavirus infection outside of China, involving a Wuhan resident who had travelled to Bangkok. Over the following weeks, the first Wuhan-linked cases began appearing overseas, in locations including Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Washington state and Boston. This suggested that Wuhan’s official case numbers, which remained in the double digits for most of January, were implausibly low.

Last week, China’s National Health Commission confirmed the January 14 meeting but defended the six-day lag before issuing the public warning, saying it had been grappling with “huge uncertainty” about the virus and “further in-depth research was needed to know [its] human-to-human transmission capacity”. The revelation about what Mr Xi’s administration knew but chose not to tell the world about on January 14 raises the awkward question of whether or not the president himself was briefed on the dangers of human-to-human transmission at an even earlier date.

In mid-February the journal Qiu Shi, or Seeking Truth, which is published by the party’s central committee, revealed Mr Xi had issued instructions on containing the outbreak during a January 7 meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee. At the time, says Prof Pei, “Xi wanted to show that he was always in charge — this was primarily for domestic consumption”.

But a few months on, the revelation only begs questions about whether Mr Xi and other top party leaders knew on January 7, if not earlier, that the virus was highly contagious. Residents wear face masks as they line up for coronavirus tests in Wuhan. In January the Communist party’s ability to mobilise the nation stunned the world, beginning with its quarantine of Hubei province, encompassing 60m people.

The article was published shortly after a three-week period in which Mr Xi, whose appearances and utterances normally receive blanket propaganda coverage, had been relatively invisible in state media. He made his first appearance on the front lines of the virus fight on February 10. In another belated assertion of Mr Xi’s grip on the situation, two days before the Seeking Truth article was published, he fired the party’s two top officials in Wuhan and its province, Hubei.

Line to Wuhan

Mr Xi’s disappearing act in late January and early February could indicate that even China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong was finding it difficult to get to the bottom of what was happening in Wuhan, says Mr Johnson. “The instinct of local officials in China, or any similar system, is not to say, just before the biggest holiday of the year: ‘We have a catastrophe on our hands,’” he says. “The bottom line was Xi didn’t have his people in Wuhan initially so he didn’t know what the right information was. The real risk [he faced] was coming out and saying that ‘things are great’ or ‘things are terrible’ and then being proven wrong three days later. That’s how you get yourself in trouble.”

Aside from potentially shedding embarrassing light on Mr Xi’s own handling of the crisis, an investigation could also raise some awkward questions about whether China’s official virus count — currently at 82,965 cases and 4,634 deaths according to the National Health Commission — has been grossly underestimated.

According to Chinese state television, more than 124,000 people flew from Wuhan to Beijing or Shanghai between December 30 and January 22. But to date China’s political and financial centres have reported a total of only 1,259 infections and 16 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus meets Xi Jinping in Beijing in January. Mr Xi said China would back an ‘objective and impartial’ WHO review, but only after the crisis passes and if it does not focus solely on China.

“The small infection numbers outside Hubei are related to low testing rates,” says one Chinese doctor who asked not to be named. “We did not have many test sites outside Hubei. If we want to figure out the real infection rate, we need to conduct large-scale antibody testing to see how many people used to be infected.” Even within China, some voices are calling for an official investigation regardless of the reputational risks it might involve, arguing that an honest accounting of the party’s mis-steps is necessary to counter international criticism.

“We should put together a comprehensive white paper about the virus in which we recount what happened between the end of December and [Wuhan’s quarantine on] January 23, what we did and why we made mistakes,” Yao Yang, a prominent economist at Peking University, said last month in a local media interview. “We should state clearly that during this period we did indeed drag our feet and weigh [various] pros and cons, but did not purposefully engage in a cover-up.”

Belated protection

The global coronavirus pandemic ultimately raises a larger question about Mr Xi that NPC delegates will studiously avoid over the coming week: whether the direction he has guided the country in over the past seven years, characterised by increasingly strict party control of civil society, has fundamentally strengthened or weakened its capacity to govern.

In late January the party’s ability to mobilise the entire nation stunned the world, beginning with its quarantine of Wuhan and then the rest of Hubei province, encompassing 60m people. It then took advantage of the Chinese new year holiday, extending it for an additional week to keep people at home nationwide and then only relaxing restrictions on movement between provinces in carefully calibrated stages. Chinese officials argue that the implementation of such forceful measures, just one month after the first officially confirmed cases emerged in Wuhan, explains the country’s extremely low per capita infection and mortality rates.

By contrast, the US response continues to vary depending on the approaches adopted by state governors, leading to multiple Wuhan-sized infection clusters and stubbornly high daily infection and fatality counts. But even if the Chinese party-state ultimately led a successful containment effort, many critics counter that the system’s rigidity cost it an opportunity to ringfence the outbreak in Wuhan in early January.

In an online post this month that was quickly censored, Zhang Xuezhong, a Shanghai-based constitutional law expert and longtime party critic, lamented the consequences of Mr Xi’s authoritarian rule. “The government’s tight controls have almost completely destroyed the ability of Chinese society to help itself,” he wrote.

Mr Zhang’s comments echoed a similar critique written in late February by Ren Zhiqiang, a former property executive and party member who has been highly critical of Mr Xi’s crackdowns on civil freedoms. “No matter how many shortcomings exist in China’s administrative system, if there was freedom of speech citizens could have taken measures to protect themselves,” wrote Mr Ren, who has since been detained by the party’s discipline inspection commission. “Simply trusting the people with freedom of speech could have achieved a great victory in preventing and managing this epidemic, and there wouldn’t have been such a huge price to pay.”

Additional reporting by Xinning Liu