Since the coronavirus epidemic turned into a national crisis on January 20, when a government adviser confirmed the possibility on live television of human-to-human transmission, Xi has maintained something of a low profile, rarely appearing in newscasts connected to the outbreak.
But many were caught off guard the next day when Premier Li Keqiang, officially the No. 2 leader but seen as sidelined under Xi by many analysts, was made the head of a super commission in charge of combating the epidemic.
Sporting a face mask, Li on Monday toured Wuhan — the central Chinese city that has recorded the overwhelming majority of the cases and deaths — to reassure overworked medical workers and jittery ordinary citizens, pledging government resources and receiving loud cheers.
Although all state media reports stressed that Li was “entrusted by Xi” to visit Wuhan, the absence of China’s most powerful leader in decades from the epicenter has generated a swirl of reactions — often in coded words — on the country’s tightly monitored and censored social media platforms.
“Having concentrated so much power in his hands, Xi’s been heading countless commissions and groups — except this one,” noted Pin Ho, the founder of Mirror Group, an influential Chinese-language media company based in New York that publishes books and websites on Chinese politics.
“And this one is dealing with the most important national, or even global, issue of the day — about life and death,” he added. “This mistake may become his political Waterloo.”
Ho believes that reports from Xi’s aides, who he says are afraid of relaying any bad news to their boss, likely downplayed the situation in Wuhan initially.
On January 23, the day Wuhan was placed under virtual quarantine — an unprecedented move to contain the virus that has also trapped millions of residents inside the city — Xi made no mention of the outbreak in a speech celebrating the Lunar New Year in Beijing.
Given Li’s past experience in dealing with public health crises, some analysts argue that letting the Premier head the commission was a sensible choice, but many others view it differently.
“Li was selected for political reasons,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Center for China Studies and well-connected political analyst. “If the situation deteriorated further, Li would have to take the blame.”
Echoing Lam, Ho said that a backlash from both within the Party and the public emerged quickly, prompting Xi to take the extraordinary step of underscoring his own crucial role in the country’s effort to contain the virus while meeting the WHO delegation on Tuesday.
Possible scape goats
For now, most Chinese people’s frustration and anger appear to have focused on local officials at the epicenter, especially Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang.
Zhou shocked the nation last Sunday by acknowledging that 5 million people — all potential carriers of the coronavirus — had left the city by the time the lockdown went into effect in the morning of January 23.
Many have also accused him of trying to cover up the outbreak from the onset — often pointing to a local police statement on January 1 announcing that eight “rumor-mongers” were “dealt with in accordance with law” for posting information about pneumonia cases spreading across the city.
In a live interview televised around the country, Zhou insisted that he wasn’t legally allowed to disclose information about infectious diseases without approval from “higher authorities.” “If people want accountability, I’m willing to be sacked to satisfy their demand,” he added.
Analysts say, without naming anyone, Zhou hinted that all political decision-making requires a stamp of approval from the very top — and therefore paralyzing swift action.
Ho even suggested that Zhou’s offer to step down was an act of open defiance instead of an admission of guilt — as officials all understand that only the Party leadership, not themselves, can decide their fate.
“Zhou knew he’d be the fall guy,” said Ho. “And he threw down the gauntlet to challenge the power structure.”
And that’s a problem that Xi could do without. Some now worry the situation may push him to centralize power even more, as he faces perhaps his biggest political challenge to date.
Unlike the Hong Kong protest movement or the trade war with the US, analysts say he can’t easily blame hostile foreign forces for a homegrown epidemic — ostensibly exacerbated by initial mishandling in Wuhan.
“Strongmen often rely on the halo of being national heroes, being brave and adventurous,” said Ho. “If Xi takes the risk to go to Wuhan now, his political reputation would bounce back — but of course there is the risk of infection due to the uncertainty of the virus.”