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Political carnage of China's coronavirus outbreak is just beginning

Xi Jinping will emerge weakened from crisis thanks to slow government response

| China
Xi Jinping gestures near the slogan "Race against time, Fight the Virus" during an inspection of the center for disease control and prevention in Beijing on Feb 10: Xi could double down on purges and social control.   © Xinhua/AP

Official heads have finally started to roll now the outbreak of the coronavirus in China has claimed more than a thousand lives and shows no signs of abating. The Chinese Communist Party fired the party chiefs of Hubei province and Wuhan municipality on February 13, putting local officials on notice that it would no longer tolerate incompetence in handling the worst public health crisis since the SARS epidemic 17 years ago.

As the CCP leadership habitually treats its local officials as dispensable instruments of rule, regardless of their loyalty or competence, few should be surprised by the unceremonious departure of these two local party chiefs. Their only offense appeared to be their faithful compliance with Beijing's policy of suppressing freedom of expression in the service of the party's political monopoly.

While the fate of the local officials sacked for the poor handling of the Covid-19 outbreak will likely be a footnote in future accounts of this disaster, the political impact of the epidemic could be far more consequential than most expect.

To be sure, the amount of political damage the CCP and, in particular, President Xi Jinping will sustain depends on the duration of the crisis and the severity of the economic disruption. Nevertheless, even under the most optimistic scenario of the containment of the outbreak by mid-April, the CCP's performance-based legitimacy and Xi's image will have been seriously dented.

A useful way of thinking about the potential fallout of the coronavirus outbreak is to recall the SARS episode. There are some potential lessons.

A leadership transition nominally occurred at the end of 2002 when Hu Jintao succeeded Jiang Zemin as the CCP General Secretary. However, Jiang continued as the de facto top leader by retaining his position as commander-in-chief. The outbreak of SARS quickly upended his plans. Several of Jiang's loyalists, including the minister of health, were held responsible for lying to the public about the outbreak.

Taking advantage of public outrage against Jiang, for his violation of the implicit two-term limit, and his incompetent and deceitful cronies, Hu and the premier at that time temporarily relaxed media control and began a series of political maneuvers that forced Jiang to step down from the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission in September 2004.

This episode must be weighing on Xi's mind today. His abolition of the presidential term limit in March 2018 has cost him much political capital. In the last two years, a series of adverse events, especially the U.S.-China trade war and the unrest in Hong Kong, have further eroded his image as an omnipotent leader.

In the run-up to the 20th national party congress in the fall of 2022, Xi needs all the good news he can get to make a strong case for extending his term. But the coronavirus outbreak has made it harder for him to do so easily. Scapegoating local officials will not appease public outrage.

Medical staff transfer a patient from an ambulance at the Jinyintan hospital where pneumonia victims are being treated in Wuhan on Jan. 20.   © Reuters

His authority has apparently taken a hit already. He learned of the outbreak as early as January 7, when he convened the Politburo Standing Committee to discuss how to respond. Curiously, despite what Xi calls his "repeated instructions," the Chinese government did not sound the alarm of a public health emergency, nor did he cancel his planned state visit to Myanmar on January 17-18.

The decision to wage an all-out effort to contain the virus was not made until January 20 -- two days after he returned to Beijing. His absence on the front line during the first two weeks of the crisis -- in particular his decision to send Premier Li Keqiang to the epicenter of the outbreak, Wuhan, instead of going there himself -- has also raised doubts about his leadership.

We can only interpret Xi's tour of a neighborhood in Beijing on February 10 -- and the firing of the party chiefs of Hubei and Wuhan three days later -- as belated remedies to regain the control of the political narrative.

Xi Jinping inspects the novel coronavirus prevention and control work at Anhuali Community in Beijing on Feb. 10.   © Xinhua/Reuters

Of course, it is too soon to say how the Covid-19 crisis will affect the outcomes of the 20th party congress. What is certain is that a succession of serious domestic and external setbacks has greatly complicated Xi's plans.

While he may still get a third term in 2022, he could be forced to make more political concessions, such as appointing an heir apparent and promoting senior officials who are not seen as his loyalists to the Politburo Standing Committee.

Alternatively, he may be tempted to emulate late ruler Mao Zedong, who typically lashed out against his critics and suspected foes in the party each time his policy flopped. Instead of beating a political retreat and seeking compromise, Xi could double down on purges and social control.

Regardless of Xi's course of action, history may again rhyme in China, where a power struggle unfailingly erupted in the aftermath of political debacles such as the Great Chinese Famine (1959-1961), the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the Tiananmen crackdown (1989).

It is a safe bet that the downfall of the two apparatchiks in Hubei is the beginning, not the end, of the political carnage to come.

Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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