COVID-19: Does the Virus Disrupts Xi’s ‘Manifested Destiny’?
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COVID-19: Does the Virus Disrupts Xi’s ‘Manifested Destiny’?

By Dr. Amrita Jash
Research Fellow, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi, India

COVID-19: Does the Virus Disrupts Xi’s ‘Manifested Destiny’?

Dr. Li Wenliang, the whistleblower of the COVID-19 epidemic parted with saying: “There Should Be More Than One Voice In A Healthy Society”. This very statement brings into perspective the deep fault lines in China’s existing monolithic and censored political system. Wherein, upholding the political stability of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and its leadership acts as the cornerstone. That is, political security is about CPC’s security as the ruling party- holding tantamount importance for regime survival. To which, the Wuhan epidemic acting as the litmus test proves that being ‘red’ still takes precedence over being an ‘expert’ in today’s China. However, with COVOD-19 causing social instability in China, it becomes imperative to ask: What does COVID-19 imply for China’s political stability?

In calling the coronavirus outbreak as the “major public health emergency” since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, Xi remarked saying- “ [t]his is a crisis for us [China] and it is a big test”. Xi’s words itself exemplify that the biggest casualty of the epidemic is Xi Jinping’s political legacy as the ‘supreme leader’ for infinity. As noted, Xi’s long absence from the political scene during the peak of the outbreak until calling ‘Victory in Wuhan’ in March has called for significant criticism. How does this affect China’s domestic politics?

First, the Party leadership’s ‘hide and bide’ strategy at the initial stages of the virus outbreak has resulted in public criticism of the incompetent handling of the Wuhan epidemic. As a result, the Chinese leadership called for a reshuffle with Party chiefs of Hubei and Wuhan, Jiang Chaoliang and Ma Guoqiang replaced by Ying Yong and Wang Zhonglin respectively in light of the fading confidence of the Chinese public of the Party. The likely impact of which will be witnessed in an erosion of supportfor the CPC among China’s urban middle class.

Second, the increasing political divide that challenges Xi’s accountability. As evident from Ren Zhiqiang, a Chinese realty tycoon and mainly a member of the princeling clique, criticism of Xi as a “clown who insists on wearing the emperor’s new clothes”. This is reflective of the way COVID-19 is causing a factional divide in Chinese politics at large, and Xi in particular. 

Third, increasing opposition to Xi’s profile as “Chairman of All Things”.An open letter in circulation is suggesting an extraordinary plenum of the Politburo to reflect on “Xi’s wrongs”, added with a demand of Xi’s “step down as president, party chief and commander of the Chinese military”.

Fourth, Xi’s handling of the virus gets shadowed by the experts of the 2003 SARS handlers. That is, China’s other top leaders such as Vice President, Wang Qishan and Premier Li Keqiang- both with history of dealing with the SARS epidemic were called upon by the Chinese public to take the lead in fighting the epidemic. This highlights Xi’s lost grip over the confidence of the Chinese people. To restore Xi’s image, CPC’s new line of thought is emphasized on calling Xi as the “man of the hour” and “commander-in-chief of China’s war against COVID-19”.

In this context, China’s fight against COVID-19 also brings forth two perspectives: First, with unprecedented measures of Xi’s ‘people’s war’ such as-imposing countrywide lockdowns, holding commercial restrictions on travel, utilizing big data, AI and robotics, setting up fields hospitals and enforcing mass mobilization has succeeded in prevention and control of COVID-19 in China. And second, Chinese leadership’s lack of transparency in the handling of the Wuhan epidemic added with measures of surveillance and censorship over its public has exposed the brimming reality of Chinese domestic politics.

What makes these aspects significant is the fact that it puts Xi’s accountability under severe scrutiny. It can be strongly argued that this will factor in largely at the leadership change during the 20th Party Congress in 2022. Hence, it can be rightly said that COVID-19 does act as a decisive factor in shaping Xi’s fate in the future. For Xi, the dent is already made. 

About the Author

Dr. Amrita Jash (ORCID ID: 0000-0002-7004-694X) is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies. She has a Ph.D. in Chinese Studies from Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi-India. Her expertise are China's foreign policy, China-India relations, China-Japan relations, security, and strategic studies.

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.