BEIJING – 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.”
“The style and contents of the speech are puzzling,” Shirk said. “It’s odd for the top leader to provide a detailed timeline like this.”
The speech’s publication comes as Xi and other top leaders punish local leaders in the face of public anger over authorities’ initial response to the outbreak after the death of Li Wenliang, a doctor who was sanctioned for attempting to bring the virus to light.
The illness, which has already killed more than 1,800 people, has disrupted global trade and prompted China to quarantine some 60 million people — roughly the population of Italy.
“It’s extremely rare for Qiushi to release one of Xi’s internal speeches just two weeks after he made it,” said Gu Su, a professor of philosophy and law at Nanjing University who has written books about China’s political system. “This exception was made under the pressure of public opinions after doctor Li Wenliang’s death and the escalation of the harm caused by the epidemic.”
Perhaps the simplest explanation for the speech’s release is to show that Xi has been actively engaged in handling the crisis from an early date, contrasting with what the party has portrayed as the slower response of officials from Hubei province, the center of the outbreak. Last week, Hubei’s top party official was replaced by Shanghai’s former mayor, Ying Yong, and Wuhan’s party secretary was also removed.
Beijing has long struggled with the question of how to impose order from the center in a continent-sized country of 1.4 billion people. From bad debt to graft to environmental regulations, local officials often have more to gain by doing their own thing than listening to national leaders. The practice is so common it has an adage: “The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.”
“It’s part of an overall strategy to paint any failures to prevent and control the spread of the virus as the fault of local leaders,” Trey McArver, partner at China-based consultancy Trivium China, said of the speech’s release. “The piece shows that Xi and the central leadership are on top of things.”
Still, if quelling criticism was the objective, it seems to have failed. Chinese internet users were quick to point out the discrepancy between Xi’s public and private comments, while many analysts asked why the speech’s publication was necessary at all for a leader officially designated the “core” of China’s political system.
The timeline shows Xi first addressed the issue with China’s supreme decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, before Chinese scientists told their peers around the world about the new virus. He also didn’t order a quarantine of Hubei until 15 days after he first discussed the issue, even though by that point Chinese scientists already had confirmed evidence of human-to-human transmission.
“For Xi to authorize the speech’s publication at this juncture seemed strongly defensive, as though he needed to make clear that he didn’t bear any of the blame for the slow initial response to the discovery of the virus in Wuhan,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute and author of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.”
“In fact, it does the opposite, by seemingly putting him on par with the top officials in Hubei, in Wuhan, in being late to recognize the gravity of the public health crisis as it was unfolding,” McGregor said.
Qiushi Journal is run and overseen by the Communist Party’s Central Committee, which is headed by Xi. The name means “Seeking Truth,” which was used by former leader Deng Xiaoping to distance the party from the personality cult of Mao Zedong, the only Chinese leader in history more powerful than Xi.
Shirk, the former U.S. diplomat who is also chair of the 21st Century China Center at UC San Diego, said the speech’s release may be aimed at getting the six other members of the Standing Committee to assume “collective responsibility.” She also raised another possibility: “Might the Standing Committee and retired elders have pressed him to acknowledge his own responsibility in the public cover up during the critical early stages of the epidemic?”
Probably no one outside of the tiny upper elite in China knows the answer. What’s clear, however, is that the leaders of the world’s second-biggest economy are having a hard time communicating their plans to control the virus.
“The speech underlines something that has been apparent from the start,” McGregor said. “That Xi and the central government are struggling to control the narrative of the crisis in a way that sends consistent signals to the population, Chinese government officials and the international community.”
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