It may seem preposterous to suggest that the outbreak of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, has imperiled the rule of the Communist Party of China (CPC), especially at a time when the government’s aggressive containment efforts seem to be working. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the political implications of China’s biggest public-health crisis in recent history.
According to a New York Times analysis, at least 760 million Chinese, or more than half the country’s population, are under varying degrees of residential lockdown. This has had serious individual and aggregate consequences, from a young boy remaining home alone for days after witnessing his grandfather’s death to a significant economic slowdown. But it seems to have contributed to a dramatic fall in new infections outside Wuhan, where the outbreak began, to low single digits.
Even as China’s leaders tout their progress in containing the virus, they are showing signs of stress. Like elites in other autocracies, they feel the most politically vulnerable during crises. They know that, when popular fear and frustration is elevated, even minor missteps could cost them dearly and lead to severe challenges to their power.
And “frustration” is putting it mildly. The Chinese public is well and truly outraged over the authorities’ early efforts to suppress information about the new virus, including the fact that it can be transmitted among humans. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the uproar over the February 7 announcement that the Wuhan-based doctor Li Wenliang, whom the local authorities accused of “rumor-mongering” when he attempted to warn his colleagues about the coronavirus back in December, had died of it.
With China’s censorship apparatus temporarily weakened – probably because censors had not received clear instructions on how to handle such stories – even official newspapers printed the news of Li’s death on their front pages. And business leaders, a typically apolitical group, have denounced the conduct of the Wuhan authorities and demanded accountability.
There is no doubt that the authorities’ initial mishandling of the outbreak is what enabled it to spread so widely, with health-care professionals – more than 3,000 of whom have been infected so far – being hit particularly hard. And despite the central government’s attempts to scapegoat local authorities – many health officials in Hubei province have been fired – there are likely to be more questions about what Chinese President Xi Jinping knew.
Not surprisingly, Xi has been working hard to repair his image as a strong and competent leader. After the central government ordered the lockdown of Wuhan in late January, Xi appointed Premier Li Keqiang to lead the coronavirus task force. But the fact that it was Li, not Xi, who went to Wuhan seemed to send the wrong message, as Xi realized in the subsequent days.
On February 3, at a Politburo Standing Committee meeting, Xi took an unusually defensive tone in a speech that smacked of damage control. While Xi admitted that he had learned of the outbreak before he sounded the alarm, he emphasized his personal role in leading the fight against the virus.
Moreover, on February 10, Xi made a series of public appearances in Beijing, aimed at reinforcing the impression that he is firmly in command. Three days later, he sacked the party chiefs of Hubei province and Wuhan municipality for their inadequate handling of the crisis. And two days after that, in an unprecedented move, the CPC released the full text of Xi’s internal Politburo Standing Committee speech.
Though Xi has apparently regained his aura as a dominant leader – not least thanks to CPC propagandists, who are working overtime to restore his image – the political fallout is likely to be serious. The profound uproar that marked those fleeting moments of relative cyber-freedom – the two weeks, from late January through early February, when censors lost their grip on the popular narrative – should be deeply worrying to the CPC.
Indeed, the CPC may be highly adept at repressing dissent, but repression is not eradication. Even a momentary lapse can unleash bottled-up anti-regime sentiment. One shudders to think what might happen to the CPC’s hold on power if Chinese were able to speak freely for a few months, not just a couple of weeks.
The most consequential political upshot of the COVID-19 outbreak may well be the erosion of support for the CPC among China’s urban middle class. Not only have their lives been severely disrupted by the epidemic and response; they have been made acutely aware of just how helpless they are under a regime that prizes secrecy and its own power over public health and welfare.
In the post-Mao era, the Chinese people and the CPC have adhered to an implicit social contract: the people tolerate the party’s political monopoly, as long as the party delivers sufficient economic progress and adequate governance.
The CPC’s poor handling of the COVID-19 outbreak threatens this tacit pact. In this sense, China’s one-party regime may well be in a more precarious position than it realizes.