China, COVID-19, Health, World Affairs

How Damaging Will the Coronavirus be to Xi Jinping’s Authority?

President Xi has become, since his inauguration in 2012, China’s most powerful leader since Mao. His likely longevity in the post is strongly suggested by the presence of those around him in senior positions—all older and therefore unlikely to succeed him. He has been personally popular and has published his own thoughts on China and communism in a form also not seen since the time of Mao. Xi-ism is not quite a thing yet, but the signs are there.

So why, then, is his authority under threat? Let’s start with Hong Kong. The stream of protests, which have run there over the last six months—and their enormous scale—has disturbed Beijing. The protests, whatever their immediate cause, are protests against the mainland government and hence the Communist Party headed by Xi. Diplomatic pressure from the U.S., in particular, has hurt. The ineptness of the Hong Kong SAR government, with knee-jerk and ill-thought-out responses that have frustrated both pro- and anti-establishment groups, has not helped. The mainland liaison office in Hong Kong—effectively an embassy—has a new head, who has a reputation as a problem solver but had never set foot in Hong Kong until this month. The previous incumbent has been moved sideways—to demote him would have been seen as an admission of failure.

Why though, might the failings of the Hong Kong government, separated by the “one country, two systems” doctrine from Beijing, reflect poorly on Xi? Xi has centralised power by taking on a variety of positions over the past years as a way of increasing his power. A high-profile example of this came in 2017, when Xi announced the doctrine of “overall jurisdiction.” This strongly suggested that Hong Kong—and Macao, and indeed all 23 mainland provinces—should ultimately come under the purview of Beijing, and so under the purview of Xi himself. So strongman Xi has some responsibility for Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, to the south-east, president Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan has just romped home in a presidential election, winning a big re-election victory on the back of a record turnout. Her coolness towards Beijing was undoubtedly a big factor. The response of the mainland establishment to this has been very unimaginative. What is needed, apparently, is merely a new approach to the old demand of reunification. Even in Hong Kong, a prominent opinion piece in the respected SCMP addressed how reunification of Taiwan and the mainland could still work. But a pre-election opinion poll in Taiwan indicated that a mere seven percent of voters want reunification with the mainland. A new approach to reunification should be scrapping any thought of it. Longstanding policy in Beijing, though, has been to isolate Taiwan economically and diplomatically so it is “obliged” to join the mainland. Xi himself has consistently spoken of the “territorial integrity” of Taiwan and mainland China. But again, the personal influence of Xi renders him culpable. During her successful re-election campaign, President Tsai offered “refuge” in Taiwan if necessary for Hong Kongers. After the result was announced, she was asked by CNN if her re-election had been helped by the residents of Hong Kong. Her cutting response? “Xi Jin Ping and Carrie Lam helped me.”

And now there is a threat to Xi from coronavirus. The overall jurisdiction policy of 2017 has produced a predictable reluctance to act by the Chinese regions without approval from the centre. The coronavirus was identified in Hubei province in December, but almost no precautions were put in place initially. In the past week or so there have been apologies from top local officials Ma and Zhou for the slow reaction. Ma said “I must ask for authorisation before I could disclose it [the virus].” The reaction by Beijing—surely approved by Xi in person—has been to close down major cities to try and make up for over a month of lost time. Even for China, these restrictions are unprecedented. Xi’s hope is that he can present himself as the strong man—the decisive leader—who saved China and the world from the virus.

But what if the measures don’t work? If the virus spreads, Xi may be criticized for having assumed overall responsibility for the regions and then failed to act in time when the crisis broke out. Xi has presumably foreseen this possibility and describes corona as a “demon virus,” suggesting it is beyond human influence—and so it can’t be Xi’s fault if it all goes wrong. Ominously for Xi, there have already been one or two small protests in Wuhan by locals who refuse to accept the closedown. Police marching against protestors and drumming their shields with extendable truncheons may become a more common sight as the Chinese New Year celebrations conclude and the well-stocked fridges begin to empty.

And so the consequence of Xi’s overall jurisdiction policy may be this: enhanced authority when things go right, and a fire that “burns all the way to Beijing” when it doesn’t.


Brian Eaton is a resident in Hong Kong.


  1. An informative piece. Thanks.

    I’ve been talking to friends in Shanghai peridocally. Because of the numbers taken ill and the incredibly overworked (and some now infected too) hospital staff in Wuhan city, Hubei province, and elsewhere, large numbers of medical professionals from Shanghai have been sent to shore up the response in these areas. Presumably, this decision was made in Beijing. The worry Shanghiaese have is that if the virus spreads to these now understaffed areas China may be in serious trouble. China can build many hospitals quickly, seemingly conjured out of thin air, but creating medical personnel is beyond Beijing’s magic.

    Coronavirus hurts the CCP and Xi in the peoples’ eyes, but, paradoxically, it also protects the party and its leader at this time. No one is rallying in the street because no one wants to be infected. Xi doesn’t have to answer to the people, so long as the state security apparatus remains under his control his authority remains.

    In October 2017, The New York Times reported:

    Mr. Xi “has been able to take political control of the military to an extent that exceeds what Mao and Deng have done,” said Tai Ming Cheung, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies China’s defense forces. “He has already demonstrated ahead of the congress his ability to elevate key commanders that are close to him.” . . . . He is now poised to cement his control by installing a new cohort of civilian and military leaders loyal to him and his vision for the Chinese military. . . . “The control of the military is an ironclad insurance policy for Xi,” said Minxin Pei, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California who studies Chinese politics. “If Xi has complete control of the military, nobody dares lift a finger.”

    Xi isn’t going anywhere. Not unless coronavirus gets him too.

  2. Xi has tried to conflate his authority with that of the CCP; the Xi cult claims that they are one and the same. But if push comes to shove, the party will kick him out. Admittedly that will only happen if things get very serious, but depending on how bad things get it is possible.

    The CCP has done an effective job of eliminating all political competition inside the country. There is no alternative—if the Party loses power the result will be anarchy. And people realize that, both inside and outside the Party, and that is their greatest fear. If things get bad enough, to the point it threatens to Party’s control, the Party will eject Xi rather than allow anarchy.

  3. No, if it comes to a fight it will be a Xi faction of the party versus the rest of the party. And if Xi has a tight control of the security apparatus then he’ll win that fight. That’s what happened in the Soviet Union. Stalin was the most ruthless and won the interfaction fights and killed off his rivals.

  4. The Wuhan virus has been absolutely slamming China’s economy. Whole swathes of the country are shut down. Businesses, offices and factories are closed and empty. Residents are confined to their apartment complexes, only one person allowed out every two days to buy food. February is going to be a lost month, China is out 1/12 its economy for the year. Foreign businesses, already leaving China due to Trump’s trade war, have begun to see that China is not the way forward.

    The trade war was already going fantastically well. You won’t hear about it, because the media would rather eat broken glass than report anything positive about Trump (other than he attacked a country) but China is getting hit hard by the trade war even before the Hunan virus. But to find news like this you have to go to insiders like the highly respected China Law Blog:

    "Chinese factories are hurting these days. Bad. Their sales are way down, especially to the United States. In China’s manufacturing exodus set to continue in 2020, the South China Morning Post made this starkly clear with statistics:

    Tariffs saw China’s trade in goods surplus with the US fall by 7.9 per cent in November, according to data released by the US Census Bureau on Tuesday. This was amid a 20.84 per cent fall in Chinese exports to the US from a year earlier, including items like cellphones. US purchases of Chinese goods are now at their lowest point since March 2013.

    Of equal importance is that China factory exports are expected to dip even more in 2020:

    For every foreign company that left China in 2019, there were two to three more seriously contemplating doing so and we expect more companies to leave China in 2020 than in 2019.

    Chinese factories are well aware of these numbers, and they are terrified by them. Chinese factories see American companies reducing their purchases to buy their products elsewhere. “Compared with June 2018, the month before the trade war began, US imports of goods from Vietnam have soared 51.6 per cent, Thailand 19.7 per cent, Malaysia 11.3 per cent, Indonesia 14.6 per cent, Taiwan 30 per cent and Mexico 12.7 per cent.” This massive downturn in American companies manufacturing in China has greatly impacted Chinese factories and greatly influenced how they see things."

    Add the virus in and it’s a rout. I’m not saying Xi is going to lose the mandate of heaven, but he’s closer than he’s ever been.

  5. Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev?

  6. Of course it will become a factional fight, but Xi is generally seen as a bureaucratic manipulator with no charisma. Few, even in his faction, are loyal to him other than from fear. Think if Dick Cheney was President…everyone would fear him and toe the line, but as soon as any cracks appeared in the facade many would grab their first chance to stab him in the back.

    The CCP is like an organism, and as any organism it has an eye out for its own survival. If the leader seriously threatens its survival, the leader will be dumped.

  7. It is more than trade war prompting the change. Companies have been surreptitiously attempting to leave China because their intellectual properties are being stolen. Just an example, all kinds of items are sold on eBay that are copies and many appear to come from the same Chinese facility, occasionally they are intercepted by customs and returned so the awareness must be increasing of the crooked practice.

    For those companies who though they could buy market share in China by locating in China, some have instead found it to be a one way deal and their manufacturing investment is now held hostage. Recently one big electronics company has been attempted to sell a major product line to another company. It didn’t make sense until I noted that the products in question are manufactured in China.

  8. I see a recently diagnosed case in the UK was at a conference with over 200 people, before showing symptoms. This shit is scary.

  9. At this point, China’s success in handling the Coronavirus has probably enhanced Xi Jinping’s authority. As of today, China is doing far better than any western country in controlling the virus. Of course, a few other Asian countries (Taiwan, Singapore, etc.) are also doing well.

    In the future, people will compare China where the pandemic was stopped at around 80K cases versus Germany where Merkel is projecting 50 million cases. Xi will be praised accordingly irrespective of whether he deserves it.

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