Chinese leader in peril over virus

XI JINPING'S image has been tarnished amid rising fears the novel coronavirus will evolve into a pandemic.

But as the virus continues to spread, with over 80,000 worldwide infections and a rising death toll, experts say the Chinese leader's response will be to clamp down even tighter.


Speaking at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, senior fellow and author of Xi Jinping: The Backlash Richard McGregor said the Chinese leader's strongman image had been shattered in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

"For Xi Jinping the narrative has been very muddled," he said. "First he came out and issued a statement, and Wuhan was locked down. Later he came out and said he knew about this on January 7 and instructed the Politburo to do something about it. That's at a time when we weren't getting any official announcement at all.

"Initially his approach was what Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping would have been - drift into the background and only re-emerge at a strategic time.

"That narrative has now been thrown out. He had a conference call with 170,000 officials the other day to deliver a message."


On Sunday, Mr Xi gave a massive national teleconference address, which involved as many as 170,000 cadres and military personnel.

He outlined Beijing's battle plan to stop the epidemic, warning it would have a massive impact on the country's economy.

It was seen as a rare chance for the country's grassroots party members to hear directly from the top boss, as well as a sign that he wanted to make sure his words reached the provinces directly.

Mr McGregor dismissed the likening of the epidemic to "China's Chernobyl", saying we're "not there yet", but he noted Mr Xi's handling of the virus was a stain on his leadership.

"We don't know what the long-term impacts will be on the healthcare system, economy or political systems, but certainly Xi's standing as a leader has been tarnished."


Since January, China has seen a rare outpouring of criticism over authorities' initial attempts to suppress information about the disease.

China's social media pages have been flooded with angry netizens criticising officials for failing to contain the initial outbreak in the locked-down city.

Much of the anger was because authorities initially suppressed information of the outbreak.

Mr Xi's address on Sunday signalled he may now be clamping down harder on China in response.

"In this epidemic prevention-and-control work, the governance abilities and professional abilities of some leading cadres are obviously lagging behind, which must be paid great attention to," he said.



Mr McGregor said Mr Xi's first impulse will be "more control, not less control".

"Many would take the opposite lesson from this - that you should have much more open transmission of information because it is a safety valve, a preventive measure and the like."

He said Mr Xi remains - "broadly speaking" - a popular leader, due to the growth of China's economy and position in the world under his watch, as well as his anti-corruption campaign and state control over the media.

"But ordinary people are being made to pay the price for officials' mistakes in a very direct and visceral fashion," he continued. "Whether that translates into a political movement to open up at all is a moot point. I doubt it. But I think there would be a lot of pressure from the intellectuals of the technocrats who are critics of Xi, to take that lesson from this crisis. Whether he does or not is difficult to know."

Last week it emerged Mr Xi had been aware of the deadly coronavirus much earlier than originally thought.

The Chinese leader issued orders on fighting the coronavirus on January 7, during a meeting of the country's Politburo Standing Committee, almost two weeks before his first public comments on the disease.

It wasn't until January 23 that Chinese authorities banned travel in and out of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak. By this point, thousands of people had already travelled in and out of the city, around the mainland and overseas.

In a speech delivered on February 3, Mr Xi outlined a contingency plan to respond to the crisis, which he said could jeopardise China's economic and social stability.

State media published the speech, essentially revealing that top leaders were aware of the outbreak's potential severity well before such dangers were made known to the public.

"I issued demands during a Politburo Standing Committee meeting on January 7 for work to contain the outbreak. On January 20, I gave special instructions about the work to prevent and control the outbreak and I have said we have to pay high attention to it," Mr Xi said.

The speech was released as Beijing faced increasing criticism over its handling of the deadly coronavirus outbreak, prompting a reshuffle of officials in Hubei province.

There are currently 80,967 coronavirus infections worldwide, including 78,064 in China.

A total of 2763 people have died from the virus, with around 98 per cent of the deaths taking place in the mainland.

There are 23 confirmed cases of the virus in Australia.

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