When the as-yet unnamed coronavirus began to spread across China from December 2019, many people outside the country speculated that the pandemic would trigger a legitimacy crisis for the country’s leader, Xi Jinping. As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) claims supremacy over every aspect of Chinese life, Xi was responsible for the regime’s failure to contain the virus. Indeed, Chinese people were initially outraged over the government’s inadequate responses. However, the public attitude flipped from anger to support over time. Xi now seems to enjoy even more popularity than before the outbreak.
How can we explain the changes in Chinese people’s attitude toward the Xi regime? Why have Chinese citizens shown even stronger support for the government during the COVID-19 crisis? These are important questions to have a better understanding of the CCP’s survival strategy under Xi.
Public Opinion: From Criticism to Support
During the initial phase of the pandemic, from January to March this year, Chinese people openly expressed their anger and frustration with the government. The scale and intensity of the pushback against state propaganda was unprecedented, peaking when Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor, died from the coronavirus in February.
Chinese netizens criticized the initial cover-up of the outbreak and later the draconian measures taken by the authorities to contain it. Chinese intellectuals also criticized government officials for placing their loyalty to their superiors over their responsibility to serve the people. For example, Xu Zhangrun, a law professor at Tsinghua University, published an essay in February that directly blamed Xi for mishandling the pandemic. At the time, the coronavirus outbreak seemed poised to trigger a major legitimacy crisis against Xi.
But Chinese people’s attitude toward the government started to flip beginning in mid-March. Recent research of Chinese netizens’ commentaries on COVID-19 shows that most maintain a confident and positive tone when comparing China’s performance with other countries during the pandemic. Beyond Chinese netizens, the vast majority of Chinese people share a similar sentiment. A large-scale survey involving 19,816 people from 31 provinces of China, conducted by York University’s Dr. Cary Wu and his team in late April, reveals that Chinese citizens’ satisfaction with government performance during the COVID-19 pandemic is very high. How can we explain the rapid change in the Chinese people’s attitude toward the government?
Why the Change?
There are at least two explanations. First, scholars of Chinese politics have long noticed that Chinese citizens tend to be more critical of government performance at the local level, and this hierarchical evaluation tendency has been observed again during the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey results again show that the public blame for poor government performance is concentrated on local authorities rather than the central government in Beijing. Chinese citizens harshly criticized the local governments of Wuhan city and Hubei province for covering up and downplaying the epidemic’s severity, even when it became clear that the situation was getting out of control. In this context, the perception that Chinese people were frustrated with Xi himself, which was apparently a popular belief outside China, might have been nothing more than an optical illusion, since Chinese people’s anger was directed at the local authorities from the beginning.
Second, Chinese people’s support of the leadership can be explained with a pattern that the political scientist Suisheng Zhao conceptualizes as “liberal nationalism.” Liberalism and nationalism seem to be mutually conflicting, but Zhao argues that Chinese youth can have both attitudes internally. The trick is that young Chinese can be liberal on domestic issues, while simultaneously nationalist in the international arena. Indeed, young Chinese netizens have shown this pattern: They are critical of the government performance at the local level but respond aggressively against foreign criticisms of the Xi regime or CCP as a whole.
Chinese media often frame Western criticisms as an unfair attack meant to exploit challenging times, with a sinister intent to further destabilize China’s domestic politics. Such narratives seem to be well received by young Chinese, as confirmed in numerous social commentaries online. A “rally ‘round the flag” effect has been observed in other countries too, with a temporary rise of popularity for some world leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic. What is unique about China is that younger Chinese, who are internet-savvy and globally connected, also constitute a group of strong defenders of the Xi regime.
Of course, for its part, the Xi regime has also actively cultivated the Chinese people’s dual attitudes to its advantage. When Chinese people repeated the tendency to put blame on the local over central authorities, the internet censors allowed unusually large amounts of harsh criticism to remain highly visible, both on social media and in the press. The central government even encouraged the widespread criticism of local officials. For example, the State Council posted a national call for information on local misconduct and information suppression, and the government-controlled Global Times published an op-ed that directly called out the Wuhan city government for its inadequate response.
In addition to using local authorities as a scapegoat, the state media also highlighted the spiking COVID-19 cases in the United States and Western Europe, and drawing a stark contrast with the decreasing infections within China. Chinese media’s depiction of Western governments’ dysfunctional and chaotic response feeds the propaganda narrative that foreign governments are unfairly putting all the blame on China. With COVID-19 narratives viewed alongside Western objections to China’s actions in the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, Chinese people become further convinced that Western governments have a malign intent when accusing China of responsibility for the global pandemic.
In sum, Chinese people tend to criticize the local governments over the central government. Foreign governments, however, criticize the central government, and then the Chinese people defensively support the central government. As a result, Xi Jinping seems to have become even more popular than he was before the COVID-19 outbreak.
Does This Mean Xi Jinping Is Invincible?
However, Xi’s popularity does not help solve the substantive problems that continue to exist. Although public criticisms are being directed at the local authorities, in fact, the local governments’ cover-up and inadequate responses are part of a bigger problem: China’s political system rewards the local officials who focus most on pleasing their superiors, not the people they serve. Although Xi managed to divert public attention from the failure of his authoritarian rule to prevent the pandemic, some critical citizens can still see through the problems. According to the large-scale survey noted above, the more educated young Chinese – those with university degrees under 30 years old – tend to show lower levels of satisfaction with government performance.
And while there are ongoing crises in the U.S. and Europe, the pandemic in China is not over either. Public discussions about the origin of the virus and the development of vaccines are closely monitored by the government.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a recent addition to the myriad problems with which the Xi regime has been forced to grapple. The Chinese elites and intellectuals increasingly view Xi’s one-man rule as the root cause of the problems. They just cannot express their frustration for fear of prosecution.
According to testimony by Cai Xia, a former professor of the Central Party School who currently resides in the U.S., there are many people in China who are quietly waiting for Xi to make a kind of strategic error so that they can seize the opportunity to speak up against him collectively. Then an anti-Xi faction could quickly be formed and initiate a power struggle within the Party. As long as such a possibility exists, Xi Jinping cannot remain content with the temporary popularity he gained in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. A legitimacy crisis can spread anytime, as long as the pandemic and its effects on the economy linger. And this is the reason why China watchers still need to track and identify any signs of changes in public opinion toward Xi.
Dr. Sungmin Cho is a professor of Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, a U.S. Department of Defense institute based in Honolulu, Hawaii. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, or of the U.S. Government.