Xi Jinping, coronavirus and the new cold war

Xi Jinping, coronavirus and the new cold war
© Getty Images

The outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19), which the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization declared a “public health emergency of international concern” in January, represents the most serious challenge that China’s Xi Jinping  has faced. Many Western observers and internal observers — most notably, Xu Zhangrun, in his recent piece, “Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear” — have opined that Xi’s power is significantly threatened.  

Such views represent wishful thinking, and don’t take into account Xi’s leadership skills and resilience, as well as a sense of who he and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are, and the concatenation of such sensibilities with China’s rejuvenation and national destiny. So I wouldn’t bet against Xi yet.

Xi’s authoritarian management of policy (he has been referred to as The Chairman of Everything) has played a significant role in his ruthless accumulation of power since 2012. But with the coronavirus outbreak, Xi has had some missteps, leading some observers to question if his rule — or the rule of the CCP — is under challenge. And Xi’s delegation of management of the epidemic to Premier Li Keqiang and Vice Premier Sun Chunlan has led some to question whether this represents his way of letting other officials take the blame for any mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis.


Coronavirus has the potential, in addition to its suffering and medical cost, to wreak havoc upon the already slowed, debt-laden Chinese economy. The Chinese government has exhibited an amazing response to the coronavirus epidemic by quarantining millions of inhabitants. This aggressive approach, never seen before in any country, suggests that while Xi and the CCP have managed the epidemic aggressively, such measures would be impossible without the consent of the governed.

Regarding the long-term political, social, scientific and economic effects of the epidemic, China’s trading partners are diversifying their supply chains, as critical components of industries such as auto, consumer goods, electronics and biomedicine/pharmaceuticals are disrupted. Borrowing a page from DARPA’s rapid vaccination program, the Chinese government is likely to move forward with the development of novel vaccines and more timely virus detection mechanisms.

COVID-19 may paradoxically represent a chance for China to re-engage more globally, not only with respect to supply chains, but also with respect to open communication — which is critically important in scientific research — and public-health cooperation. Or, might China instead harden and turn inward, developing a more truculent, disruptive policy of “Made in China 2025”? How will the U.S. and other allies respond to such moves? And later, will China’s CCP return to its earlier policy of 10-year term limits for its leadership?

Many have written of a new cold war between China and America, as both powers contend for leadership in a multi-polar world. But this new cold war will be fought not only politically and economically. This is also a war for talent, where human capital — people — and public resource investment will determine its outcome. To think of it as a Chinese version of Sputnik is not far off the mark. There are several hundred thousand Chinese graduate students and postdoctoral students in the U.S. Will China lure them home, or will we (and other nations) aggressively compete for this talent?

There are 17 Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) scholars in Texas and four of them are Chinese. Such HHMI scholars often go on to win Albert Lasker awards and Nobel prizes — and then proceed to develop translational spinoffs, new ventures and novel technologies. Xi’s Made in China 2025, which may become his greatest legacy, includes not only artificial intelligence and robotics, but biomedicine. To say that Chinese scholars cannot innovate, but only copy and steal, is a false argument. Rather, the context in which such innovation takes place is critical, and the United States has for decades led the world in scientific innovation.  


But at a time when National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation budgets have been dwindling, the question becomes: Can Xi and the CCP create the conditions for innovation in an increasingly authoritarian, tightly-controlled system? Will COVID-19 force China to adapt, survive and even thrive? These are critical questions as the coronavirus epidemic evolves.

It is easy to lose sight of Xi’s psychological resilience and to forget how this sustains his leadership. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has written that Western analysts should use caution when projecting onto China “an image of their preferred imaginings, rather than one reflecting the actual statements of China’s own leaders, or in the physical evidence of Chinese statecraft … [which] have pointed to a vastly different reality.” 

But we’re now in a new reality, where coronavirus is likely to shape Xi’s, the CCP’s, China’s, and the rest of the world’s response to this dangerous, frightening epidemic at the dawn of a new decade — Mother Nature’s unpredictable salvo in the opening chapter of a new cold war.

Kenneth B. Dekleva, M.D., served as a regional medical officer/psychiatrist with the State Department from 2002 to 2016, and currently is associate professor of psychiatry and director of Psychiatry-Medicine Integration, UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. The views expressed in this paper are his own and do not represent the official views of the U.S. government, Department of State or UT Southwestern Medical Center. Follow him on Twitter @KennethDekleva.