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The deadly coronavirus that originated in China also threatens the political health of Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Nikkei montage/Xinhua/AP/Reuters)
China up close

Xi ally warned leader against overexposure in virus fight

Wang Qishan feared public anger being directed at the president

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

TOKYO -- As Chinese people cautiously returned to work Monday after an extended Lunar New Year holiday, President Xi Jinping also put on a mask and visited medical facilities in Beijing.

At a residential community in the capital's Chaoyang district, Xi observed prevention and control efforts for the epidemic at the primary level. At his next stop, Beijing Ditan Hospital, a video conference was set up with hospitals in Wuhan, Hubei Province, the epicenter of the coronavirus, and Xi exhorted medical staff to continue the fight to defend the city.

"We should fight bravely," Xi said, "resolutely contain the spread of the epidemic, and resolutely win the people's war, an all-out war, a resistance war to prevent and control the epidemic."

State-run Chinese media outlets covered his inspection tour extensively. State media also have reported heavily on how Xi has discussed the issue with foreign leaders. U.S. President Donald Trump, Saudi King Salman, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Indonesian President Joko Widodo are among the leaders he has spoken with, according to Xinhua News Agency.

China reported over 1,100 deaths and 44,000 confirmed infections through Tuesday, and the virus has spread elsewhere in Asia and beyond.

Xi had been notably absent from public view in recent days. But with the hospital visits, the Chinese president was eager to show himself taking leadership and demonstrate a hands-on approach.

Xi also was keen to show the rest of the country his strong will to secure the national capital. The National People's Congress, China's parliament, convenes in Beijing in early March, and any delay in the annual gathering would affect the nation's entire political calendar. The president may have hidden political foes who secretly hope this will happen.

The gathering comes at a sensitive time, as the Communist Party prepares for top leadership changes at its next party congress in 2022. Though it remains unknown whether Beijing will be safe enough for delegates from all provinces to gather on March 5, Xi needed to show that such risks were under control so that local delegations could start preparations.

That was why Xinhua's coverage of the hospital visit specifically mentioned that the number of daily new confirmed cases outside Hubei Province "has been dropping for six consecutive days since Feb. 4."

Xi had been out of the public eye since late January. His stance in the background was linked to the advice of a close ally, said one source familiar with political affairs in Beijing.

That ally is none other than Vice President Wang Qishan, "who has his eye on a long internal battle within the party ahead," the source said.

For Wang, having Xi at the forefront could expose him to responsibility if the fight against the coronavirus did not go well.

Instead, it was a "leading small group" headed by Premier Li Keqiang and the State Council -- the national government also led by the premier -- that was put at the front line of the coronavirus battle since late January.

Wang made his name in the fight against the SARS epidemic in 2003. Hainan Province's top official at the time, Wang was moved to Beijing to serve as acting mayor, after his predecessor was dismissed over accusations of a poor response to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Wang demonstrated competence in bringing a crisis under control, which earned him the nickname of "chief firefighter."

What was it about Xi's stance that worried the firefighter?

The source says Wang gently pointed out that Xi might be going too far in asserting his leadership in the coronavirus crisis.

In a Jan. 28 meeting with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization's director-general, Xi is said to have noted that he was "personally commanding" the response to the outbreak.

Tedros responded by saying, "President Xi's personal guidance and deployment show his great leadership capability," according to Xinhua.

But in Wang's eyes, having China's top leader avowing his "personal command" was dangerous.

In the worst case, calls for Xi to take responsibility for a policy failure could affect top leadership changes at the Communist Party congress in 2022.

The president's strategy put so much at stake. Xi had pushed through a revision of the national constitution two years ago to scrap term limits on a Chinese president, cementing his grip on power.

Xi also had taken the controversial move of keeping Wang, who was beyond the official retirement age of 68, as a central figure in his leadership team by naming him as vice president.

Wang did not want Xi to suffer a political setback now. And the vice president, who has known Xi since the latter was a teenager, was aware that only he was close enough to give the leader frank advice.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with Vice President Wang Qishan during the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 17, 2018. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura) 

After the SARS outbreak, Wang was promoted to Chinese vice premier and member of the top decision-making body, the Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee. Wang also shined as the commander of Xi's signature anti-corruption campaign, which became the biggest achievement during the Xi regime's first five-year term.

But even for Wang, who has abundant experience in coping with SARS, it appears unclear what can be done about the mysterious new virus.

Li Zhanshu, another close aide to Xi, has a view similar to Wang's, sources say.

Li Zhanshu, who serves as chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, also has known Xi since they were young. He is the president's good conversation partner and a crucial longtime member of the "Xi Jinping faction."

The concerns of Wang and Li Zhanshu became a reality last week. Shortly after Xi spoke of his "personal command," a major development shook the country and required the president to reassert his presence.

A young medical doctor who tried to warn about the severity of the situation in Wuhan died Feb. 7 after being infected with the new virus and developing pneumonia.

Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist, was 34.

From the early days of the outbreak, Li Wenliang had warned that the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was suspected of being a source of the new illness. He had sent a message to many fellow medical workers in a chat group Dec. 30. alerting them of the danger in Wuhan.

By Jan. 3, Li Wenliang was contacted by local authorities and told to stop "making false comments."

At a police station, the ophthalmologist was made to sign a letter vowing to repent his behavior and pledge never to do it again. Li Wenliang had no choice, if he wished to avoid formal arrest.

It also has emerged that about eight other whistleblowers appeared at an early stage. The attempted cover-up by authorities has invited criticism that the spread of the new virus was a "human-made disaster."

Had the truth been made public in December, the criticism goes, effective countermeasures might have been taken and the outbreak would not have spread so quickly at home and abroad.

On the night of Li Wenliang's death, a bizarre atmosphere gripped Wuhan.

Citizens hunkering down in their apartments communicated with each other secretly on social networking sites and offered condolences en masse in various forms at 9 p.m. local time. Some turned on smartphone lights or flashlights, opened the doors of their apartment rooms and shouted their condolences.

Li Wenliang graduated from Wuhan University, but he hailed from Jinzhou in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning. Many texts praising him were posted on social networking sites from Jinzhou as well. They contained criticism of the "human-made disaster" between the lines.

Under the Xi regime, freedom of speech has been curtailed. Li Wenliang's effort to warn the public was hindered, and even medical doctors face death if they lack accurate information.

Alarmed by criticism of the government, authorities stepped up their surveillance and deleted what were deemed problematic posts from social networking sites one after another.

But it is not difficult to imagine that even some local police officers who cracked down on Li Wenliang may have collapsed after catching the new virus.

The Communist Party's Central Committee felt a sense of crisis over growing public discontent and decided to hastily dispatch a team from the National Supervisory Commission to Wuhan.

The Central Committee has flip-flopped and is now poised to let Li Wenliang be hailed as a hero.

But it's a double-edged sword. The more the truth is uncovered, the more calls there will be to hold Beijing accountable.

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He has spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.

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