Penetrating the Firewall: How COVID-19 could pose a threat to Xi Jinping’s Authority

By: Simon Fischer

Chinese strongman Xi Jinping has prominently and unabashedly built a high-efficiency, highly-controlled regime since he took over in 2013. His consolidation of power and increasingly growing control over Chinese society has garnered international attention, and one could argue that his regime might be too strong to topple. He seems to have come away unscathed from the Hong Kong protests, and since then there have not appeared to be any other threats in sight for Xi. That was until the recent emergence of the coronavirus. The rapidly growing disease originated in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province, and has now spread to South Korea, Iran, and Italy. Now the world has turned its attention back to China, hoping for an effective solution to a befuddling disease that is inching closer towards being labeled a pandemic

However, Xi Jinping has not shown the leadership or the decisiveness that critics might expect from the leader of a UN Security Council member nation that is the site of a worldwide outbreak. He has instead ran from and downplayed the disease, seemingly more concerned with public opinion than public safety. When China first announced the outbreak of a “mystery viral pneumonia”, they made it clear that all of the patients had been exposed to the disease in a food market, and that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. This announcement was reassuring to global health experts, who concluded, at the time, that the country at large was not at risk for serious illness. Within a month, though, the number of confirmed cases grew exponentially and the outbreak was declared as a global health emergency by the WHO. Any hopes of a quick, manageable outbreak were thrown out the window.

If he hasn’t yet, Xi Jinping will need to figure out a new defense strategy if he wants to fend off this attack on his legitimacy. He cannot censor the coronavirus, nor can he put it in a re-education camp. It is a very real threat to public health, and if he is not careful, the coronavirus could become a threat to his power as well. As the amount of Chinese citizens killed by the disease continues to rise, the pressure will only grow for his administration to find a solution. Given the scrutiny he has already received for it, he cannot simply brush COVID-19 under the rug like he has with other potential threats. Sooner than later, the Chinese people are going to want answers, and if they do not get them, they will more than likely lash out in a big way. 

Ultimately, the coronavirus presents a unique challenge to Xi Jinping, and he will either have to adapt, or fold. He has defaulted to a strategy of downplaying the severity of the disease, but now has been widely accused of a cover-up. Similarly, Donald Trump has also utilized the downplaying strategy, but its effectiveness has yet to be determined and the US only has a limited number of confirmed cases. Even if the consequences of the outbreak conflict with Xi’s image as an all-powerful, all-knowing leader, conceding that he misjudged the disease might benefit him more in the long run. Admitting a mistake now and actively working to find solutions would at least comfort Chinese citizens, and ideally prevent any future disruptions. If not, though, then the world might finally see some cracks start to surface in Chinese authoritarianism.