An Erosion of Trust: Coronavirus’ Compounding Effect on Xi Jinping’s Leadership


China, and in particular the leader of its ruling party, are facing one of their biggest tests, in the form of one of their ‘smallest’ threats – a microscopic virus that threatens to sweep the world. James Devenish explains.

It seems a truth self-evident that in moments of crisis societies’ bonds are drawn closer. Australia has experienced this firsthand through our devastating summer of bushfires. Volunteer firefighters throughout the eastern states braved unimaginable conditions to provide protection for their neighbours, mates and strangers – in some cases sacrificing their lives to do so.

In order for these societal bonds to draw closer in the manner we witnessed in Australia, there must be space. Space for a society to grieve, to vent frustrations and to be heard.

For the many Australian’s whose hardships had been exacerbated by the response of the federal government, the ire of grief and frustration could be brought down against Prime Minister Morrison.

The videos of refused handshakes and heckling locals were shared widely by the many Australians who felt let down by their leaders. These interactions are often parodied by the media as humorous expressions of Australian society. They are however far more meaningful than this base representation. They are a direct demonstration of the space that is needed in society in order to grow closer and to overcome in times of crisis.

They are expressions of the free, open and unbridled heart that lies at the centre of almost all democratic nations around the world.

As the Coronavirus epidemic sweeps through China, the lack of such an unbridled, democratic heart belies the beginning of an unprecedented challenge for CCP leader Xi Jinping.

Xi’s cult of personality has become a double-edged sword. When swung in times of strong economic growth and a prosperous, peaceful population, Xi is able to use the state media to promote the efficacy of his “Chinese dream”. In such times this cult of personality works to implicitly reinforce itself by linking all positive developments within China to Xi’s direct involvement.

However, in times of upheaval, the opposite is also true and the sword can just as easily damage its bearer.

Over the past year, Xi has experienced a number of stumbles as he attempts to strengthen his grip on power within the CCP, and over the population more broadly. At the fore of these setbacks has been the tit-for-tat trade war with US President Donald Trump.

An analysis by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development indicated that in the first half of 2019, US tariffs placed on Chinese exports inflicted an export loss of US$35 billion on the Chinese economy.

Exacerbating this economic bulwark for Xi has been the ongoing protests in Hong Kong that gained momentum in the last half of 2019. These protests were especially sensitive for the CCP as they drew a stark contrast with celebrations for the 70-year anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Republic of China in October. Internet censors and VPN blockers were used to great effect within China to limit this contrast domestically, however Xi’s tenure didn’t escape internationally scrutiny so easily.

Amid an overwhelming rebuke of CCP rule in the Taiwanese election results last month, Xi’s cult of personality is facing perhaps its most destabilising challenge. As the spectre of Coronavirus haunts much of the world, Xi’s domestic actions – quarantining entire cities, purpose-building hospitals and makeshift contagion centres – have undermined international confidence in the conciliatory (and somewhat ironic) rhetoric of his party members.

China’s ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, condemned Britain for sparking an “over-reaction” and inciting panic by enforcing a travel ban for its citizens within China. The void between party actions and words could hardly be wider.

Within China some 50 million residents of 15 cities have been quarantined with little information or reassurance. One resident in the epicentre of Wuhan recently told a BBC reporter “we don’t feel safe. We don’t know how the virus is passed from one person to another, but we can’t stay at home all the time. We don’t know when this will end. We don’t know when we will be able to return to normal life – that’s very stressful”.

Over 3,000 kilometres away in China’s westernmost province, there are grave fears for the over 1 million Uighurs forcibly detained in crudely termed “re-education camps”. As the first cases of Coronavirus emerge in Xinjiang province, many are questioning what is being done to prevent its spread into these camps.

If local officials are continuing to detain Uighur Muslims from cities where the Coronavirus has been detected, the risk of it spreading to these “re-education camps” will be greatly exacerbated.

Such conditions are the breeding ground for populational mistrust in government officials. For Xi, a prerequisite for maintaining autocratic control over the largest population on earth is the trust of his people. Trust that CCP rule – which has been so tightly linked to Xi himself – will provide its citizens with the safety and economic vibrancy that in many ways is the implicit trade off that the Chinese citizenry make for decreased social freedoms.

As China’s economy falters in the face of the trade war and more systemic problems, such as its aging population, the economic fallout from the Coronavirus epidemic – which has closed borders, interrupted supply chains and forced millions of people to stay home from work – is yet to be fully felt.

The bare shelves of a supermarket in Wuhan, China, in February 2020. (IMAGE: Studio Incendo, Flickr)

In an ominous sign, when markets reopened last Monday following their closure for Lunar New Year the CSI 300 index fell over 9%, its worst opening in 13 years.

Xi’s opaque handling of the Coronavirus epidemic has been greatly exacerbated by its timing. At a time in China when millions return home to visit family members and celebrate the Lunar New Year, 50 million people have instead been quasi-imprisoned in their own homes or workplaces with the threat of non-compliance being genuine imprisonment.

In other cities throughout China where no quarantines are enforced, citizens are reticent to go outside and celebrate out of fear of contracting a virus about which they have been given very little official information.

Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’, his great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, is under serious pressure. Economic threats have been compounded by social upheaval in both Hong Kong and Taiwan and further compounded by an epidemic of mass proportions. As trust begins to deteriorate in the efficacy of his role at the heart of Chinese life, history offers a stark insight into Xi’s potential actions moving forward.

In 1957, Mao Tse Tung faced a similar threat to his party rule. After having all reference to “Mao Tse Tung Thought” removed from the Chinese constitution by his close comrades at the Eighth Party Conference the previous year, Mao faced unprecedented criticism from intellectuals following his tacit support for the “Hundred Flowers Campaign” (which aimed to give greater freedom for Chinese intellectuals to openly debate party policies).

In response to direct criticism of his own rule, Mao ordered a brutal crackdown under the “Anti-Rightist Rectification Movement”. The result was the beating, imprisonment and humiliation of hundreds of thousands of teachers, scientists and intellectuals.

In 1989, as widespread protests gripped China’s urban centres, from Beijing to Nanjing to Shanghai, Deng Xiaoping tightened his loosening grip on power by ordering the violent military intervention in Tiananmen Square. New estimates place the death toll, which was mostly comprised of young people and students, at over 10,000.

Today in 2020, as compounding threats stress the tenure of Xi’s power, the question is whether the leader of the Chinese Communist Party can be the unbridled heart that his country needs – and if he cannot, what measures will Xi take to maintain his grip on power.

James Devenish is studying a Master of International Relations at the Australian National University. He has previously been chosen as a finalist for Australian Foreign Affairs' Next Voices competition, and is a frequent writer on China.