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In China’s Coronavirus Crisis, Xi Sees a Chance to Strengthen His Rule

Before an adulatory crowd of university professors and students, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, offered a strikingly bold message about the global coronavirus pandemic. Summoning images of sacrifice from Communist Party lore, he told them that the calamity was ripe with possibility for China.

“Great historical progress always happens after major disasters,” Mr. Xi said during a recent visit to Xi’an Jiaotong University. “Our nation was steeled and grew up through hardship and suffering.”

Mr. Xi, shaped by his years of adversity as a young man, has seized on the pandemic as an opportunity in disguise — a chance to redeem the party after early mistakes let infections slip out of control, and to rally national pride in the face of international ire over those mistakes. And the state propaganda machine is aggressively backing him up, touting his leadership in fighting the pandemic.

Now, Mr. Xi needs to turn his exhortations of resolute unity into action — a theme likely to underpin the National People’s Congress, the annual legislative meeting that opens on Friday after a monthslong delay.

He is pushing to restore the pre-pandemic agenda, including his signature pledge to eradicate extreme poverty by this year, while cautioning against complacency that could let a second wave of infections spread.

He must do all this while the country faces a diplomatic and economic climate as daunting as any since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

ImageA photo released by state-run media showing Mr. Xi visiting a school in Shaanxi Province in April.
Credit…Xie Huanchi/Xinhua, via Associated Press

“If you position yourself as a great helmsman uniquely capable of leading your country, that has a lot of domestic political risk if you fail to handle the job appropriately,” said Carl Minzner, a professor of Chinese law and politics at Fordham University. “That’s a risk for Xi going forward.”

So far, Mr. Xi has largely succeeded in rewriting the narrative in China.

The disarray in other countries, especially the United States, has given him a reprieve from domestic political pressure by allowing officials to highlight China’s lower death toll, despite questions about the accuracy of the numbers.

The Trump administration’s withholding of funds from the World Health Organization handed Mr. Xi a chance to appear munificent when he pledged $2 billion in assistance and promised to make any vaccine widely available.

Mr. Xi has cast himself as the indispensable leader, at the ramparts to defend China against intractable threats. The shift has provoked the party cadre — and by all appearances much of the public — to coalesce around his leadership, whatever misgivings they may have about the bungling of the outbreak.

“If we had frozen time at Feb. 1, this would be very bad for the Chinese leadership,” said Jude Blanchette, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

China’s leaders in the past have often invoked the theme of triumph over adversity, but for Mr. Xi, who turns 67 next month, the idea threads through his own biography.

His father, a famous revolutionary leader, was purged and held in solitary confinement under Mao Zedong. The younger Xi was hounded as a child after his father’s disgrace and later, during the Cultural Revolution, ritually denounced by his own mother and exiled from Beijing to labor in a village for seven years.

Credit…Shen Hong/Xinhua, via Associated Press

Joseph Torigian, the author of a forthcoming biography on the father, said Mr. Xi’s personal hardships did not erode his loyalty to the party — at least outwardly. He emerged instead steeled, a word his father, Xi Zhongxun, used to describe his time in prison and that the son used when speaking at the university. “This moment of challenge is what makes leaders in China great,” Mr. Torigian said of Mr. Xi’s worldview.

It is a dramatic turnaround from only months ago, when Mr. Xi faced a shaken and skeptical public. The party apparatus seemed to shudder as outrage over silencing warnings about the virus and other early mistakes spilled beyond the censors.

“I see not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing to be an emperor,” a prominent real estate tycoon, Ren Zhiqiang, wrote publicly in March, prompting his arrest.

Mr. Xi made his first public appearance in the crisis only two days after ordering Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the coronavirus outbreak began, to be locked down in late January. He presided over an unusual televised session of the country’s top political body, the Politburo Standing Committee. By then, thousands of people had been infected and scores had died.

According to a lengthy account of the emergency that appeared in People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, he somberly told the committee that he had difficulty sleeping the night before — the eve of the Lunar New Year holiday.

Mr. Xi also seemed to shrink, temporarily, from his usual monopoly on center stage. He put the country’s No. 2 leader, Premier Li Keqiang, in charge of the government’s emergency response, possibly to position himself to deflect blame if the crisis worsened.

As China got the outbreak under control, the party’s propaganda pivoted again toward Mr. Xi, pushing the premier into the background. Mr. Li will deliver the keynote report to the National People’s Congress on Friday, but it will be Mr. Xi who dominates the acclamatory media coverage, likely dispensing advice to provincial leaders and delegates, and repeating policy priorities.

Credit…Ju Peng/Xinhua, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The People’s Daily account of the outbreak cited Mr. Li just once, taking orders from Mr. Xi to visit Wuhan. It mentioned Mr. Xi’s name 83 times. The piece garlanded him in tributes, describing the decision to close Wuhan as a brave personal act.

“Making this decision demands massive political courage,” Mr. Xi said the night of Jan. 22, hours before the lockdown, according to the account. “But when it’s time to act, you must act. Hesitation will only lead to chaos.”

There are few signs that Mr. Xi has been chastened by the failures in the beginning of the country’s fight against the disease — nor by the international criticism.

“All along, we have acted with openness, transparency and responsibility,” he told the World Health Assembly on Monday.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 12, 2020

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • When will this end?

      This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • How does coronavirus spread?

      It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.

    • Is there a vaccine yet?

      No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.

    • What makes this outbreak so different?

      Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.

    • What if somebody in my family gets sick?

      If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.

    • Should I stock up on groceries?

      Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.

    • Should I pull my money from the markets?

      That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.

Mr. Xi, though, has warned that China faces an increasingly uncertain world. He has often leavened his promises of a bright future with warnings against a possible economic meltdown, foreign crisis or political decay. Last month, he sounded unusually ominous.

“Confronted with a grim and complicated international epidemic and global economic developments, we must keep in mind how things could bottom out,” he told a Politburo Standing Committee. “Be mentally and practically prepared to deal with long-lasting changes in external conditions.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge involves the economy, which contracted for the first time since China began its remarkable transformation more than four decades ago. The rising prosperity of millions of Chinese has been a pillar of the Communist Party’s legitimacy ever since.

Credit…Nicolas Asfouri/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In recent weeks during visits to three provinces, Mr. Xi has sought to return the focus to the policy agenda that predated the coronavirus. He went to coastal Zhejiang and two inland provinces, Shanxi and Shaanxi.

Wearing his trademark dark blue windbreaker and, when indoors, a mask, Mr. Xi has visited factories, ports, government offices and scenic spots trying to return to life while enforcing new safeguards against infection. In poorer inland villages, he has lingered over crops of wood ear fungus and chrysanthemum — the kinds of commercial farming crucial to his antipoverty drive.

“Your wood ear fungus here is famous,” he told a clapping crowd of villagers in Shaanxi, Chinese television news showed. “This is your way out of poverty and into prosperity.”

But even the Communist Party’s polished propaganda stagecraft showing China overcoming the epidemic can reveal how life remains far from normal. Footage of his visit to Xi’an Jiaotong University indicated that the crowd of cheering students and professors waiting for Mr. Xi was arranged while the university remained largely closed.

“School hasn’t restarted yet, but here you all are,” Mr. Xi deadpanned, drawing scattered laughter from the crowd.

Throughout his efforts to revive the economy, Mr. Xi has exhorted officials to keep a tight lid on coronavirus cases as they move to restart business. “The risks of a rebound in domestic infections are ever-present,” he said this month from the Communist Party’s compound in Beijing.

For local officials, finding the right balance between reopening and averting outbreaks can be dangerously fraught. The party chief and other officials of Shulan, a city in northeast China, were dismissed after roughly 20 new cases were reported. The new cases prompted a lockdown and restrictions in surrounding areas.

“The deeper implications of Covid for China is still very much unclear at this point, but potentially monumental in hindsight,” said Adam Ni, the director of the China Policy Center, a research organization in Canberra.

If Mr. Xi can survive this year unscathed, he has mapped out a triumphant march to a Communist Party congress in 2022, when he could press for another five years as China’s top leader. Next year will bring the grandiose centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party; and in the following year China will host the Winter Olympics.

“I’ve actually thought Xi Jinping had a fairly good run for another five years well before Covid-19,” Mr. Blanchette said. “That being said, Covid-19 is icing on the cake here.”

Source: NY times

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