Blame Xi, not China, for the impact of the coronavirus

Blame Xi, not China, for the impact of the coronavirus
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Amid the worldwide pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, one must acknowledge that we face many deep-rooted political problems in the United States. President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally MORE is certainly to blame for failing to act quickly on the threat posed by the virus. But blame for the widespread impact of this palpable global pandemic is on the hands of one person alone: Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Xi Jinping.

To refer to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” as Trump and other members of the GOP leadership have, is deeply problematic. It is also misleading. The severity of the virus has nothing to do with action or inaction by the Chinese people; on the contrary, many Chinese citizens should be lauded for their efforts to sound the alarm on the issue.

The breadth of the global outbreak, however, is the natural result of the climate of fear, distrust, and paranoia in China’s political system under the leadership of Xi Jinping. China’s lack of transparency is nothing new. Its experience with the SARS epidemic serves as the most illustrative example in the case of similar infectious diseases. But the fact that public security officials attempting to quell dissent and information-spreading were China’s de facto “first responders” to the coronavirus is telling.

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It is no secret that Xi has precipitated sweeping changes in China’s political system. Shifting away from consensus-based decision-making and enacting reforms to reduce potential impediments to his agenda, he has consolidated power on a scale not seen since Mao Zedong. A necessary ingredient in this achievement has been the quelling of all forms of dissent – from the rooting out of factions such as the Shanghai clique and Communist Youth League alumni to jailing a Chinese student who tweeted an image highlighting Xi’s – admittedly uncanny – resemblance to Winnie the Pooh.

In short, Xi has one goal — to dominate China’s political system and suppress any potential threats to his power. In previous eras, the consequences of this dynamic might be limited to China’s domestic sphere. Indeed, for decades following normalization of relations with Beijing, U.S. politicians and businesses alike were content to engage with an authoritarian regime whose proclivity to “disappear” dissenters and flagrantly violate international human rights law was, if not ideal, at the very least tolerable.

Now, in the face of a global public health threat, America is facing the effects of Xi’s megalomania on its doorstep. Observers of Chinese politics know that accurate data are hard to come by when attempting to evaluate official government activity. It is all the more so in the current context, where the Chinese government is attempting to salvage its image by promoting a success story narrative internationally.

Instead, one need only take the experience of the late Li Wenliang to understand how China initially responded to the outbreak. While anecdotal, it is illustrative of how Xi sees the virus as more of a threat to his political power than the general well-being of the Chinese people.

As many international outlets have reported, on December 30 Wuhan-based doctor Li Wenliang posted information about the virus on WeChat, China’s most popular social media platform. Li was almost immediately punished by local public security officials for “spreading rumors” in early January. Tragically, he then died in February after contracting the virus.

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Li’s response was a reasonable one for someone in his profession. Recognizing the potential ramifications of this infectious disease, he utilized the tools available to him in an attempt to raise public awareness — a commendable action in the eyes of any rational observer. Instead, he was seen as a threat, to both the careers of the local officials who called him into questioning and, by extension, to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and Xi himself.

As a result of this unfortunate series of events, Xi did not become involved in the response to the outbreak until January 7. Even after recognizing the severity of the threat, China ignored offers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization to help with the situation. By January 21, the CDC had confirmed the first case of the virus in Washington state.

Calculating the extent to which the global spread of the virus could have been prevented will be nearly impossible in the short term, and may be the subject of future studies by infectious disease experts. Ultimately, there will be no smoking gun linking China’s botched response back to Xi. China’s propaganda apparatus and methods of social control are in fact designed to absolve him of any responsibility. But at a systemic level, the world must recognize that the extent of its suffering – and more tragically, that of the patients who have and will die after contracting the coronavirus – was exacerbated by the selfish political ambitions of one dictator. 

Recognizing this, China’s propaganda apparatus is operating at full steam, presenting the government’s delayed containment measures as part of a global success story and, more bizarrely, blaming the U.S. military for bringing the virus to Wuhan. Let that sink in: After punishing a man who should be heralded as China’s real first responder, the Chinese government is paying a top diplomatic official to take to a U.S. social media platform (that is ironically banned in China) and spread blatant lies as the United States faces its most critical moment yet.

President Trump must be held accountable for flaws in his response to the virus. But the United States has a collective corps of career civil servants and health care professionals working to expand access to information about the virus and provide our hospitals with needed capacity — all irrespective of Trump’s political ambitions. Chinese officials, from the Politburo to Wuhan’s public security bureau, are instead driven by fear of their paramount leader. One can only hope that this moment generates some introspection among the higher echelons of the CCP — with countless innocent lives on the line, is such unbounded fealty to one man really worth it?

Austin Lowe is a Washington, DC-based consultant and analyst specializing in U.S.-China relations and Asia policy.