China Power | Politics | East Asia

COVID-19 and Xi Jinping: How the Strongman Got Stronger

Surprisingly, China’s Xi is poised to politically profit from the deadly outbreak, both at home and abroad.

By Thomas Reilly for
COVID-19 and Xi Jinping: How the Strongman Got Stronger

People walk by a giant TV screen broadcasting news of Chinese President Xi Jinping visiting the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province, at a quiet shopping mall in Beijing, March 10, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

As the rest of the world struggles to formulate coherent policies for stemming the tide of the onslaught of COVID-19, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the Communist Party as a whole are faced with a challenge of their own as the virus ebbs in China: how do we profit from all of this? Can Xi seek to politically profit from his handling of the outbreak? He already may have, both at home and abroad, and new opportunities may yet present themselves.

Some might argue that extracting political profits from such a crisis is unnecessary. According to some analyses, Xi’s own personal standing within China has no comparison since Chairman Mao decades ago. He has effectively paved the way to remain in office for life by removing constitutional limits, purged the government of many corrupt officials (and political rivals), and consolidated control over the country’s increasingly important military. What does he have to fear? The looming specter of a slowing economy has long kept Beijing up at night. Xi’s increased political power may be in response to the font of performance legitimacy drying up, and not a moment too soon. Though a slowing of overall GDP growth is normal in any maturing economy, at the start of this year China posted its slowest growth in two decades, and current projections thanks to the recent pandemic are much, much worse.

Xi’s following in the footsteps of Mao may be in response to the slowing economy. As the engine of growth and legitimacy slows, institutions keeping the country stable may similarly degrade, thus necessitating the centralization of power within a governing body – or individual. If the lapse in control triggers unrest at the societal level, a strong leader is often well-placed to deal with domestic unrest and dissent, usually through very repressive means. This is not unknown to China, a nation quite familiar with mass mobilization campaigns, government interference, and state control. From the disastrous Great Leap Forward, and Cultural Revolution to more contemporary examples such as the “June Fourth Incident” (known in the West as the Tiananmen Square protests) and the Orwellian “social credit system” becoming more widespread throughout China.

The problem with such capricious power is that it has always evoked the ire of citizens at home and international observers abroad. That’s where the coronavirus comes in. The rapid and unpredictable spread of the new virus out of Wuhan spiraled out of the control of normal operating institutions. China’s response was resolute: essentially enacting what may be the largest quarantine in the history of the world. Wuhan, a city buzzing with 11 million people, was reduced to a ghost town overnight as the world became familiar with the term “social distancing.” Large gatherings of people were discouraged by the government, with an army of drones taking to the skies to break up impromptu meetings and warn the population of proper safety protocol.

China sequenced the genome of the novel coronavirus, disseminated it throughout the world (albeit after an initial delay), built hospitals, and quarantined tens of millions of people across many cities. The draconian measures worked. Recent estimates show that China has passed the peak of the crisis – with a single new case being recently reported within the epicenter of the pandemic. In short, Xi’s hardline tactics are winning, and with a victory comes spoils.

For one thing, China, despite some initial fumbling (as to be expected when dealing with an unknown) has essentially led the world in the fight against this pandemic. Chinese models of coping have already been exported abroad to South Korea, Italy, Spain, and France and are currently emerging in the United States. It’s significant that Western nations and democratic societies more broadly are taking a leaf out of the Communist Party’s handbook and using similarly heavy-handed tactics to secure their borders. The use of drones has been adopted by Europe as well as surveillance becomes a key weapon in this pandemic. The World Health organization has heaped praise upon China and its response efforts, saying, “We would have seen many more cases outside China by now – and probably deaths – if it were not for the government’s efforts.” Additional blunders in the West will only serve to make China’s response look more successful in comparison.

As the situation at home abates, China has begun giving back. Donations of essential health equipment have begun moving east to west, while expatriates have started flocking back to China, seemingly content to follow the draconian measures enacted there while the West wrestles with freedom over containment. In stark contrast to the 2003 SARS crisis, when the CCP was criticized for a lazy response that was shrouded in secrecy, China has presented itself as a safe haven despite being the epicenter of the pandemic, as well as a model to be emulated. Legitimacy can go a long way toward recovery and growth.

Domestically, the government is being lauded for their response, with both the central and local levels operating effectively to monitor and contain any sign of the virus. Xi has been able to demonstrate a steady hand and effective crisis management. Behind the scenes however, the massive surveillance campaign meant to monitor and contain the outbreak has proven itself a resounding success, and any expansion to the apparatus is likely to remain in place for some time, allowing for future contingencies regarding domestic issues, broadly defined. As long as the virus remains a potential threat abroad, growing surveillance seems bearable or even welcome at home, while Chinese methods of governance have gained a newfound tolerance abroad.

While political profiteering amid a crisis is often immoral at best, it is often inevitable. Ire remains against Beijing and its leader, but Xi’s strong-armed tactics in securing China have won praise – with the central government working overtime to guide that praise. Time will tell is the COVID-19 war is merely a flash in the pan for Xi, or if it will lead to a substantive boost in his strength.

Thomas Reilly is a Ph.D. candidate and lecturer at Rutgers University specializing in international relations, war, China and East Asian politics, authoritarian regimes, and the domestic causes of conflict.