Tag Archives: Xi Jinping

Xi And Biden ‘Summit’ Will Herald More Bilateral Dialogue

THE XIE ZHENHUA-JOHN KERRY announcement that China and the United States have agreed to set up a joint working group to advance their intent to co-operate on climate mitigation appears to be a prequel of other ‘dialogues’ between the two countries expected to be announced after President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart, Joe Biden, have their long-awaited video ‘summit’ early next week. 

Their video call is reportedly scheduled for Tuesday morning (Monday evening in Washington). It was brokered last month at a meeting in Zurich between China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Working-level discussions on the details and agenda have been underway since. 

It will be only the third direct discussion between the two leaders since Biden took office in January and the first since September. However, Biden often speaks publically about meetings with Xi when he was vice-president. In the ordinary course of events, the two men would have been expected to meet in person at the recent G20 leaders meeting and the COP26 climate summit now drawing to a close in Glasgow. 

That it is taking place is an indication that US-China relations, while far from repaired, have at least stopped falling apart, and that, from Beijing’s point of view, the United States has made sufficient effort to ‘correct its errors’ by fulfilling at least some of the demands delivered by Yang in a speech in late January, and in expanded list form at the stormy meeting between top officials from both sides in Alaska in March.

While the Biden administration has moved on some of the specific demands, such as ending the extradition proceedings against Huawei Technology’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, it has not budged significantly on Beijing’s big-picture demands that:

  • the United States ceases to look at China as an adversary or even as a strategic competitor;
  • Washington restores normal engagement, exchanges, communication and cooperation;
  • the United States does not meddle in China’s internal affairs, i.e., Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet;
  • Washington co-operates with Beijing’s global initiatives on issues such as climate change, post Covid-19 economic recovery and global public health; and 
  • the United States stops politicising trade and regarding it as a matter of national security.

Meeting these would have returned Washington’s position to where it was prior to the Trump administration. That is not going to happen.

ff anything, the Biden administration is continuing its predecessor’s policies towards Beijing, albeit sometimes passively, by just letting processes already in train when it took office run their course. 

His administration is divided internally over how hard it should press China. These divisions cross many fault lines within the president’s Democratic party, not just between human rights and trade and investment issues, but also between human rights and climate mitigation, and defence spending and diplomacy. These are divisions that will not be easily bridged.

Expectations for the outcome of the meeting are accordingly low. Both leaders have domestic concerns that mean they both need to manage the competition between the two countries to avoid undue shocks or surprises but to do so in a way that puts an upbeat spin on the stalemate in so many areas without sounding weak to domestic and global audiences.

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Xi Consolidates His Place In History

President Xi Jinping

LIKE MAO ZEDONG and Deng Xiaoping before him, President Xi Jinping has a historical resolution to consolidate his authority by placing him in the vanguard of the Party’s future history.

According to the communique issued at the culmination of the sixth plenum of the Party’s 19th central committee that had opened in Beijing on Monday, it was resolved that the lesson to draw from the Party’s history was to stay steadfast in 10 areas, with the party leadership being the top priority,

The Party has established Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the Party Central Committee and in the Party as a whole and defined the guiding role of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. This reflects the common will of the Party, the armed forces, and the Chinese people of all ethnic groups, and is of decisive significance for advancing the cause of the Party and the country in the new era and for driving forward the historic process of national rejuvenation.

The plenum involved 348 full and alternate members of the Party’s 19th Central Committee plus a couple of dozen other senior officials and advisors, in effect the country’s top leadership. It is a critical preparatory meeting for the 20th National Congress, which will be held in the second half of next year and which will appoint the Party’s leaders for the following five years.

Xi is expected to be reappointed then for a third term. The two-term limit on the presidency was abolished in 2018. However, there is likely to be considerable turnover among the other members of the top leadership.

The historical resolution passed at the culmination of the plenum is only the third in a century. It summarises the Party’s 100-year history, documenting its key achievements and future directions in a way that provides a continuous narrative that entrenches Xi’s personal leadership as the defining framework for Chinese politics for as long as he wishes — or is able — to retain power. It also makes Xi all but invulnerble to political attack certainly between now and the 20th National Congress.

The Central Committee called for:

The entire Party, the military, and all Chinese people to rally more closely around the Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, to fully implement Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and to champion the great founding spirit of the Party.

The official English text of the communique issued after the plenum, containing a lengthy passage on the text of the resolution but not the full text, can be found via this link.

The Cliff Notes parsing of what the communique says about the resolution is that the direct line from Mao to Xi has been made thicker, and the intermediate stop of Deng has been lightened. That not only puts Xi on a par with Mao when it comes to political authority but gives him the platform to pursue the policies that fall out of his ideology, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese characteristics for the New Era, which has now been similarly elevated.

The communique also summaries what the top leaders see as their achievements over the past year:

The economy has maintained good momentum, positive advances have been made in building up China’s scientific and technological self-reliance, and further progress has been achieved in reform and opening up. A complete victory has been secured in the fight against poverty as scheduled, the people’s wellbeing has been further improved, social stability has been maintained, steady progress was made in modernizing national defense and the armed forces, and China’s major-country diplomacy has advanced on all fronts. The campaign on studying the Party’s history has produced solid results, and severe natural disasters of multiple categories have been dealt with effectively.

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Biden And Xi Agree To Virtual Meeting That Might Be Called A Summit

WHAT TURNS A video call between two presidents into a summit meeting, beyond the label that gets slapped on it?

We may find out later this year now a ‘virtual bilateral meeting’ between President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden has been agreed in principle during a meeting in Switzerland between Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

Biden had pushed for an in-person meeting when he talked to Xi on the phone earlier this year. Xi, who has not travelled outside China since before the Covid-19 pandemic started, demurred.

The virtual compromise appears to reward Biden’s efforts to restore bilateral relations to a less confrontational posture, although he has not strayed far from the tough line on China taken by his predecessor.

However, the US president has softened the tone and made several de-escalatory gestures, most publically dropping an extradition request for Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.

The Switzerland meeting appears to have been more constructive than one in Alaska in March involving the two officials, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his US counterpart, Antony Blinken. That quickly degenerated into a shouting match.

This time around, while Yang repeated Beijing’s demand that Washington respects China’s sovereignty, security and development interests and Sullivan raised the US’ standing concerns about Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan, there was at least discussion, even if conducted in terms diplomats describe as ‘candid’.

That is still far from an improvement in relations. Beijing still holds to its line that it is Washington’s responsibility to get the relationship back on track as it is US policies that have derailed it.

Yet, agreement to a set-piece meeting, albeit virtual, indicates a desire on the part of both leaders for relations not to deteriorate further, which would not serve the interest of either leader as they cope with significant domestic challenges.

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Never-Ending Purges And Perpetual Fears

PURGES ARE PERENNIALS rather than projects in China. The official who led the investigation in the highest-ranking victim of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is himself now being purged.

Fu Zhenghua, who was China’s second most senior law enforcement official, is under investigation for ‘severe violations of party discipline and law’, according to an announcement by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection dated Oct. 2. Fu was reportedly detained in Chongqing in mid-September.

Fu is deputy director of the social and legal affairs committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Previously, he was justice minister (2018-20) and before that, vice minister of public security (2013-18). He was appointed to that post after leading a crackdown on Beijing’s sex industry as the city’s deputy police chief.

When he was vice minister of public security in 2013-18, Fu led campaigns against municipal police officers and against rights activists and lawyers perceived as dissidents, including the ‘709’ detentions of lawyers that started on July 9, 2015.

Before that, Fu had led the investigation that took down former public security minister Zhou Yongkang, who ran the euphemistically named ‘stability maintenance’ system with a fist of iron. Zhou was jailed for life in June 2015 after being found guilty in a secret trial of bribe-taking, abuse of power and disclosure of state secrets. Zhou was also suspected of complicity in former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai’s aborted coup plot against President Xi Jinping.

The announcement of Fu’s detention came two days after a statement that former Vice Minister of Public Security Sun Lijun, a compadre of Fu in the campaigns against dissident civil society, had been expelled from the Party. He, too, faces a likely secret trial and imprisonment for corruption.

Reading between the lines, it sounds as if Sun is guilty mainly of disloyalty to the highest leadership. The mention in state media that he had privately stashed away a trove of confidential documents does not bode well for him.

The two detentions have been greeted with some pleasure within both police and civil society. No love lost there.

They also hint at elite discontent with Xi, although the two men are far from the first prominent figures in the state-Party repression apparatus to be purged since Xi took control. It is unlikely they will be the last in the run-up to next year’s Party Congress.

Some powerful figures will be anxiously looking over their shoulders. Fu and Sun’s falls from grace demonstrate Xi retains the capacity to punish disloyalty and head off threats. Yet they also highlight the perpetual fears of top leadership in any authoritarian state: that those it tasks with enforcing domestic security to maintain regime stability could also turn against it.

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Xi And Biden Jaw-Jaw

PRESIDENT XI JINPING has had a 90-minute phone conversation with US President Joe Biden, only the second direct discussion between the two leaders since Biden took office and the first for seven months.

The Chinese readout on the call is more forthright than the United States’, implying that Xi told Biden that it was Washington’s responsibility to get the bilateral relationship back on track as it was US policy, driven by anxiety over China, that had escalated tensions. The White House version said both leaders had discussed the responsibility of both nations to ensure competition does not veer into conflict.

State media commentary on the call, which the United States initiated, reiterated the familiar line that Washington should take more action in correcting previous wrong deeds and respecting China’s interests, and not expecting China to cooperate while keeping it as an adversary.

However, news bulletins gave the conversation with Biden less prominence than Xi’s address to the BRICS summit.

The wide range of points of contention between the two countries, from human rights to trade, will not be resolved in a single call. However, the two leaders talking is a sign of some progress towards halting the deterioration in relations after the acerbic and unproductive talks between lower-level officials earlier this year.

These may now be able to resume.

The call may also prove to be a. preparatory step towards an in-person meeting between the two leaders, who met when Xi visited the United States in 2012 when Biden was vice-president, reciprocating Biden’s visit to China the year before.

There has been some hope that that meeting could occur during the G20 summit in Italy next month. However, Xi, who has not left China since visiting Myanmar in January 2020 when the global Covid-19 pandemic took hold, may attend the summit virtually.

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Wealth Redistribution With Chinese Characteristics

TENCENT’S NEW 50 BILLION YUAN ($7.7 billion) ‘common prosperity’ fund — the name is no accident — provides a high-profile template for corporate China’s compliance with President Xi Jinping’s stricture that high-income groups and enterprises return more to society. In his first public appearance since the annual Beidaihe leaders retreat, always a symbolic event, Xi told a meeting of the Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs earlier this wee that ‘common prosperity’ is the essential requirement of socialism.

In April, Tencent, which owns the leading social media platform, WeChat, announced a similar-sized fund to support ‘sustainable societal innovation’. Taken together, they suggest that ‘common prosperity’ is more than a slogan and that Xi sees addressing resentment over inequality, which is extreme in China, as the next Party campaign to ensure its monopoly grip on power. 

New taxes on wealth and the superwealthy are likely, eventually. Meanwhile, firms and wealthy individuals will be making similar ‘donations’ to Tencent’s to head off the continuing regulatory assault on business, or worse, asset confiscation, and to put themselves in good political standing.

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China’s Rocky Road To The US Elections

US President-elect Donald Trump. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. Licenced under Creative Commons

CHINA-US RELATIONS were always going to be rocky in the run-up to November’s US presidential election. Then-candidate Donald Trump made hay out of China-bashing in the 2016 campaign. For President Trump, finding a way to replay the theme this year was a given.

The coronavirus pandemic has provided unanticipated means for that — and taken the bilateral relationship to rock bottom. The US president has been unsparing of China, with the US economy, on whose job-creating growth he was already hanging his re-election campaign, devasted by the measures to mitigate the infection.

Most Western allies of the United States have no taste for the Party claiming the superiority of Chinese system of governance for the country getting through the first wave of Covid-19 even while castigating the United States for its tardy response. They criticise Beijing for its initial mishandling of the outbreak in Wuhan and for being duplicitous with its data. Trump has given that narrative a more malevolent twist by suggesting that the pandemic was an attempt to destroy the US economy with the intent of undermining his re-election bid.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a relentless critic of the Party and the most public of the administration’s China-hawks by dint of his office, has held fast to his so far unsubstantiated assertion that there is ‘enormous evidence’ that the source of the outbreak was the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a Chinese Academy of Sciences lab in the city that researches dangerous pathogens. He has eased back from suggestions that Covid-19 was developed there as a bio-weapon, but still claims it escaped from the Institute one way or another.

The foreign ministry has challenged Pompeo to show his evidence and, of late, distanced itself from conspiracy theories advanced by its diplomats, notably that US participants in the World Military Games in Wuhan last year brought the infection with them. State media remain on the offensive, however, bluntly accusing Pompeo of lying and ‘spitting poison’.

Even US allies are privately sceptical of Pompeo’s claim, despite Trump pushing his intelligence services to find support for it that is more than speculative. The scientific evidence is that SARS-CoV-2 is not a synthetic virus but originated in bats from which it jumped to humans, probably via an as yet unknown intermediary species and likely at a wet market.

However, Beijing has resisted an independent international inquiry into the origin of the pandemic called for by Australia as current chair of the World Health Assembly, the governing body for the World Health Organization (WHO), and echoed by the EU. This reluctance sustains credence in the possibility of an accidental escape of the virus from the Insitute, even though that remains a conceivable, not likely theory.

True, there is a history of lax security in Chinese biological labs and the Politburo discussed earlier this week reform of China’s disease control system. However, that is more directed at lapses in the early response to the outbreak. The initial public suppression of information about its emergence may have followed the official playbook, but it is unclear from the outside when Party leadership first knew of its potential severity. Improved epidemic monitoring and early-warning capabilities, revamped public health emergency laws and enhanced responses to major epidemics will be introduced, according to state media. So too, this Bystander will hazard, new internal reporting guidelines for local officials that will tighten central control.

Separately, the WHO is again talking to China about sending in an academic team to look for the origin of the outbreak. However, a WHO team sanctified and sanitised by Beijing would have scant credibility in Washington. The Trump administration already believes the UN agency is in Beijing’s pocket and intends to cut off its US funding.

Sentiment shifts

Public and political-class opinion in the United States has swung evermore behind Trump. Polling by the Pew Research Centre in March, as many US states initiated lockdowns, showed that US views of China had become increasingly negative. Roughly two-thirds of those polled said they hold an unfavourable view of China, the highest level since the survey started in 2005, and up nearly 20 percentage points since the start of the Trump administration. Republicans, and more fruitfully for a campaigning president, those who are Republican-leaning, were more negative than Democrats, but sentiment towards China is now negative within both parties.

There has also been a significant shift to seeing China’s power and influence as a major, not minor threat to the United States. The 62% of US adults polled who identify China as a major threat is 14 percentage points higher than in 2018.

Congress reflects this shift. It, too, has become more hawkishly anti-China, especially as Beijing has moved into the diplomatic space opened up by the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ withdrawal. At a time of deglobalisation in which the administration’s world view is of contesting national powers, China is magnified as a rising power in a zero-sum game.

Beijing is seen in Washington (and Brussels) as exploiting the pandemic to advance its global strategic rivalry with the United States. Its critics point to its international ‘health diplomacy’ in sending supplies and skills around the world to aid coronavirus-struck countries and to its putative reinvigoration of the Health Silk Road. They also accuse it of opportunistic expansion in the South China Sea and of taking a more belligerent posture towards Taiwan and Hong Kong.

These misgivings are expressing themselves within the US Congress not only as criticism for mishandling the outbreak but also as a greater willingness to legislate on human rights issues, such as the treatment of Uighurs and Christians within China. Trade policy and the pursuit of market access for US businesses pushed such matters to the back. However, while Beijing can take an international backlash against its handing of the coronavirus in its stride, it will not take kindly to being pressed on what for it are highly sensitive internal issues — just as it will get prickly over US attempts to bolster Taiwan by drawing it more into the WHO’s discussions of lessons to be leaned from those places that have handled the pandemic well.

An indication of how the political winds have shifted in the United States is that both Trump and his presumptive Democratic presidential rival, Joe Biden, are vying to outdo each other on being ‘tough on China’. One telling sign of this campaign dynamic is how Trump is seeking to undercut his challenger by changing his soubriquet from ‘Sleepy Joe’ to ‘Beijing Biden’.

Thus the administration’s fiery rhetoric is turning to threats of action. How many can be carried through without damaging the recovery of the US economy is a moot point. The truce in tensions that the signing of the Phase One trade deal in January marked is over. Moves by a couple of states to sue China are mere showboating, as is the historically tone-deaf suggestion that the US should pursue reparations from China for the economic damage caused by the epidemic.

Tariffs return?

White House threats to reimpose tariffs on Chinese exports are not. Trump has threatened to pull the plug on Phase One if China fails to meet the requirement to buy an additional $200 billion of US exports over two years compared with 2017’s level. ‘If they don’t buy, we’ll terminate the deal. Very simple’, Trump has said. Bluster, perhaps. Nonetheless, China is behind the pace and the agreement’s lead negotiators, Vice Premier Liu He and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, brought forward to this week their scheduled biannual call to review progress on the deal. with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin joining the call.

China has a couple of years to comply. It might yet invoke the agreement’s force majeure provision but for now is expressing its best intentions to catch up with its obligations under the deal once the pandemic has passed. If the deal falters (and this November, not end-2022 is the political deadline), tariffs from both countries suspended by the agreement will snap back into place. That would do little good for either economy amid a global recession.

Trump’s re-election campaign would anyway be better served by his being able to revert to his original election stratagem — to boast to voters that his tariffs and threats of yet more had yielded results in the form of a trade deal (limited though it was in many aspects), and to have by polling day in November tangible jobs and business for farmers and manufacturers who would vote for him in the crucial swing states, as a result of large-scale Chinese purchases.

Less simple as a campaign message, but more significant in substance are the administration’s denial to China of access to US foundational and emerging technologies. Its domestic and international campaign against China’s two leading telecoms-equipment makers, Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corp., are the focus but not limit of its policy of broad-based containment of Beijing’s indigenous technology ambitions under Made in China 2025. There will be no let-up. Export controls on semiconductor sales to China have been tightened again in recent weeks. They are likely to tighten further, especially for any technology that might have dual military-civilian use.

Washington is concerned about China’s modernisation of its armed forces. Meanwhile, Chinese concerns have surfaced that jaw-jaw might turn into war-war long before the People’s Liberation Army is ready to fight a hot war with the currently superior US military.

US government pension funds are also likely to be prevented from investing in some Chinese companies, again particularly those held to have ties to the military. Ways are being looked for to put similar constraints on private US investment funds, which, perversely, are meant to be getting greater access to Chinese capital markets under the Phase One trade deal.

The cancellation of China’s holdings of US Treasury debt, which has been discussed, appears to be off the table for now. That is a slippery slope that Washington should be extremely wary of approaching. Not so, US infrastructure, a likely beneficiary of massive post-virus stimulus spending. That is expected to be off-limits to Chinese investors.

Further immigration restrictions are also likely, not just to keep a second wave of Covid-19 infections at bay but Chinese citizens well distanced from US intellectual property in companies, universities and research centres. New applications for permanent residence by non-citizens (‘green cards’) are already suspended. Short-term work visas will control who comes into the United States.

The post-virus stimulus may also be used to reduce US dependence on Chinese supply chains, particularly in the technology and healthcare sectors. Tax and other incentives for US companies to expand their domestic manufacturing operations are likely well before the elections. This will hasten the reconfiguration of supply chains that touch China that is already underway.

Made in America now or Made in China 2025 both speak to growing economic nationalism that can easily spill into political nationalism, which in turn can have accidental and unintended consequences. A clash of differing ideologies and contesting strategic ambitions could spark what some are starting to call ‘a new sort of Cold War’.

Oddly enough, if there is a safety valve, it is the personal relationship between Trump and President Xi Jinping, which seems able to bring both countries back from the brink of their worst intentions. It is a slender thread from which to hang relations between the world’s two largest economies.

The broader concern in the business community about the deterioration in relations between the two countries is that it puts both on a downward spiral of shrinking trade and investment flows. That would deepen the US and global recessions and hasten the decoupling of two economies that three decades of deglobalisation have tightly entwined.

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Mr Xi Goes To Wuhan

China’s President Xi Jinping adresses frontline medical workers at Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province on March 10, 2020. Photo credit: Xinhua/Ju Peng.

PRESIDENT XI JINPING has paid his first visit to Wuhan, the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak, since the crisis began. State media have shown him speaking via video link to front-line medical workers at Huoshenshan Hospital, the temporary quarantine facility that was built in the city in 10 days (see above).

His visit to the city and surrounding Hubei signals that the leadership believes the worst is finally past, with the sub-text being that the Party ‘has turned the tide’.

The subtext for the rest of the world is that China is a global leader in responding to the outbreak. The further the virus spreads around the world, the better China and Xi look domestically and internationally, although there is a degree of FIFO (‘first in, first out’) to this. Update: China has offered to send emergency aid supplies of face masks, protective suits and ventilators to Italy, the country worst affected in Europe, and may send a medical team.

(How the outbreak develops in the United States may well calibrate Xi’s international standing. This Bystander expects that there will be geopolitical contestation between Washington and Beijing for bragging rights over everything from their respective handling of the outbreak to the quality of public health services and the development of a vaccine.)

Xi’s visit coincided with the lowest number of announced new infections, 19, all in Wuhan except for two international travellers. It was the third successive day with no new cases reported outside the city. The total number of confirmed cases has topped 80,000, with more than 3,100 deaths.

Getting the country safely back to work, transport restarted and the economy reignited is the next task. Balancing that with sustaining the containment of the outbreak will require careful calibration. Xi’s visit also brought some easing of local transport restrictions, but travel bans to the rest of China remain in place. In the rest of China, the streets and factories are starting to get busier, but still far from back to normal levels of activity.

Two risks are first, that the phased return to work is mismanaged in the keenness to get economic activity going again, reigniting a second wave of infections, and second, that the old habit of local officials faking the figures to meet targets handed down from on high re-emerges, in this case having the factory lights on, so the electricity usage indicator meets goal, but with nobody there working

Another risk to watch is food inflation, which has hit a 12-year high, official figures released on Tuesday showed. Those with longer memories may remember the role high food prices played in 1989. Social conditions are very different from then and the food inflation is a result of supply disruptions caused by the health crisis, but online criticism of the Party’s response to the outbreak has been noticeable despite censorship. That remains a political concern.

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Wuhan Coronavirus Will Prove Test For Xi And Party

THERE IS A lot more at risk from the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak than the health of thousands of infected people, critical though that is.

Top-level authorities have now moved swiftly and decisively to contain the outbreak, staking the Party’s reputation for purposeful social management for the public good — one of its justifications for its monopoly on power — on a successful outcome. President Xi Jinping told CCTV earlier this week that ‘people’s lives and health should be given top priority and the spread of the outbreak should be resolutely curbed’. It was, he said, ‘extremely crucial’ that every possible measure was taken to combat the virus.

In that sense, he now ‘owns’ the crisis. Local officials may get blamed, demoted or sacked for being slow to ‘fess up to the outbreak initially, but failure to contain it will now fall squarely on the shoulders of Xi and central government.

The mishandling and initial cover-up of the SARS epidemic in 2002-03, so roundly criticised internationally, will be fresh in the minds of officials high and low. This time the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, once the initial slowness of Wuhan municipal authorities to recognise and respond to a potential public health emergency had passed.

Doctors followed a standard protocol for detecting new viruses, and, taking advantage of new techniques, quickly mapped its genome and passed the details to international health authorities. The sharing of information internationally has allowed timely monitoring and treatment of arrivals abroad of travellers from Wuhan. As a result, at this point, the outbreak is a Chinese, not a global emergency.

Domestically, central government took control of responding to the outbreak from municipal governments. A coordinating team was set up at the top level. Transport to, from and within Wuhan and nearby Huanggang was shut down, effectively locking down cities of 11 million and 7 million people respectively. In all, eight cities around Wuhan have had restrictions on free travel imposed.

World Health Organization officials called the quarantining of whole cities an unprecedented response to a public health crisis. Few other if any systems of government would have the capacity to implement such abrupt and draconian measures.

Whether such a cordon sanitaire, so to speak, will prove effective, given that an infected person may have passed on the infection to another before showing symptoms themselves of being ill, is yet to be seen. The mass travelling of the Lunar New Year holiday will provide an exacting test.

With public gatherings and events cancelled as well, there will, self-evidently, be significant localised economic impact. Managing that will also be a repetitional challenge for the Party, but one relatively easily met with money.

As with the H7N9 avian flu virus in 2013, widespread internet use domestically and the demands of the international community are likely to force transparency on this issue. The more significant political challenge for Xi will be how an authoritarian system, made more authoritarian by his reforms, copes in a case in which such transparency is essential for an effective response.

The press has now been allowed uncommon freedom to report the outbreak. Where the boundaries of that easing of censorship lie are also yet to be tested and only likely to be so cautiously. The primacy of the official narrative will not be ceded.

The People’s Daily underlines the bigger question at stake: how China handles the outbreak, it said in an editorial, ‘is a test for China’s governance system and capability’. But it will be a test of more than just governmental competence and the health services ability to cope. The outbreak is revealing how surprisingly stretched are the resources of China’s hospitals.

It is still too early to know  how widespread the social and political impact of the Wuhan coronavirus proves to be or how long-lasting, but the penalties for Xi and the Party for not passing this test will be significant both domestically and internationally. But so, too, will be the prizes for success.

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Xi Holds Firm, But How Firm?

Screengrab from a live television broadcast of Xi Jinping presenting his work report to the 19th Party Congress in Beijing, October 18, 2017

CHINA’S TOP LEADERSHIP will meet behind closed doors in Beijing for four days from Monday next week, according to state media. It will be the Party’s first plenum since the out-of-cycle one in February last year that set up lifting constitutional limits on President Xi Jinping’s terms of office.

Returning to a more traditional autumn date, the plenum will focus on issues of governance and strengthening Party control, rather than economic matters, suggesting there may be policy disagreements among the country’s most senior leaders that need resolving.

Plenty of places where that could manifest itself, from how to deal with the Trump administration to how to end the protests in Hong Kong. However, given the opacity of the country’s elite politics, judging the degree of any factional infighting is inevitably speculative.

This Bystander’s longstanding view is that, while Xi is in control, it is not absolute control. However, reading the runes of the senior Party leaders’ annual summer retreat at Beidaihe, an equally speculative exercise, Xi may face external challenges but not yet an organized internal challenge.

It may also be that the plenum is just getting its agenda back on track: fourth plenums, which this will be, are typically about governance issues; fifth plenums discuss the next five-year plan. Next year’s will be held after a ‘phase one’ trade deal has likely been struck with the United States.

While most plenums are not the occasion for significant policy reform, when it does happen, it tends to happen at a plenum.

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