China's elite politics are a black box, and the country's leaders like to keep it that way. That's what makes the events of this weekend so perplexing — even to seasoned China watchers.

On Saturday, the ruling Communist Party's top theoretical publication, Qiushi Journal, released a speech showing that President Xi Jinping was directing efforts to contain the country's spreading novel coronavirus on Jan. 7, nearly two weeks before his first public remarks on the topic. The comprehensive account of Xi's involvement upended the previous official narrative on China's response, prompting speculation about why it was unveiled now.

"The speech raises more questions than it answers," said Susan Shirk, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state and author of "China: Fragile Superpower."