Chaguan – Xi Jinping wants to be both feared and loved by China’s people | China
IF CENSORS IN communist-led regimes are good for anything, it is spurring creativity. With a new coronavirus stalking China, netizens have been heaping praise on “Chernobyl”, an American-made television drama about the Soviet Union’s worst nuclear disaster. Their aim is to sneak discussion of the outbreak onto China’s tightly policed internet. In less hectic times censors would swiftly stamp out such impertinence. For the parallels with the reactor explosion in 1986, and the official cover-up that followed, are painful for China’s Communist Party bosses, whose system of government was cribbed from Soviet designs. But pointed comparisons keep popping up on China’s social media. One urges Chinese viewers to learn from “Chernobyl” that a free flow of information offers more security than aircraft-carriers, Moon landings and other signs of superpower might. Another contrasts a soothing interview granted to state television by the governor of Hubei, the province where the epidemic began, with a speech by the hero of “Chernobyl”, a Soviet scientist, about the costs of official lies.
Parallels are likely to continue in the real world. Back in the 1980s, Kremlin leaders scapegoated local officials and engineers, coolly blaming them for the disaster and denying a wider cover-up. In recent days, Chinese state media have dropped heavy hints that the mayor of Wuhan, the industrial city where the virus was first detected, will lose his job. When Li Keqiang, China’s prime minister, was appointed to oversee virus-control work, cynics suggested that his role was to take the fall should the outbreak spark a pandemic—in effect, to protect President Xi Jinping.
As it happens, censors should be relieved that Chinese netizens are focusing on the ills of Soviet collective leadership. It would be more dangerous if online critics were to start exploring a historical parallel closer to home, namely the way that in Chinese history natural disasters undermined an emperor’s claim to rule. More than one dynasty fell after catastrophes signalled that Heaven had withdrawn its favour. It was not only seen as ineptitude when a ruler was unable to protect his people from floods or famine—or, as in the second century during the Han dynasty, from repeated outbreaks of disease (probably smallpox and measles) that killed perhaps a third of the population. Such bungling showed that the emperor lacked virtue and deserved to be overthrown, people said.
Modern-day Chinese may not believe that a rampaging coronavirus signals divine anger with Mr Xi. Still, the party chief has a great deal at stake in this crisis, precisely because large claims are made about his wisdom, which is now taught in schools and studied by party members as Xi Jinping Thought. Every day, state media credit Mr Xi with personally guiding China to ever-greater prosperity, modernity and global clout. No leader has amassed such individual power since Mao Zedong, or been so lavishly praised. Chinese intellectuals accuse Mr Xi of claiming the mantle of an emperor. They point to Mr Xi’s speeches praising traditional Chinese culture, and lauding codes of morality and deference to imperial authority, as handed down by Confucius and other sages.
The result is an awkward hybrid. On the one hand, officials make claims about the efficiency of collective party leadership that would be familiar to any Soviet apparatchik. To them, populist insurgencies sweeping the West are proof that multiparty elections, a free press and other forms of democratic accountability are sources of chaos and dysfunction. As they describe it, China’s system is a meritocracy that selects highly competent experts to run the country, with a track record of correcting their own mistakes. Yet at the same time, the party’s propagandists lay claim to a very different form of legitimacy, involving the people’s love for and trust in one man, Mr Xi. So sweeping is their praise of him that it leaves essentially no room for the idea that Mr Xi could make a serious mistake.
This convoluted claim to legitimacy can be heard in the context of the current coronavirus outbreak, as leaders insist that their system of government is ideally suited to tackling the disease. On January 28th Chinese leaders hosted the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), a UN body that played an invaluable role in demanding transparency in 2003 after China’s initial cover-up of the extent of an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which led to many avoidable deaths. Wang Yi, the foreign minister, assured the WHO’s boss, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, that China would be more resolute this time thanks to “the strong leadership of the party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core and the strong advantages of the socialist system”, as well as its experience of SARS.
Unaccountable, even to Heaven
It is too simplistic to assume that all bad things that happen in China must harm Mr Xi. The virus outbreak could end swiftly, amid worldwide praise for the bravery of China’s doctors and nurses, the self-discipline of the public and the resolve of Chinese leaders, albeit after a slow start. If the crisis does not end well, scapegoats will be found, and underlings punished. That alone would not have to shake Mr Xi’s authority, which can always be shored up with repression, still greater ideological discipline and nationalist propaganda. But a botched response to the virus would lay bare tensions inherent in the party’s hybrid claims to legitimacy.
Mr Xi’s China is two things at once. It is a secretive, techno-authoritarian one-party state, ruled by grey men in unaccountable councils and secretive committees. It also claims to be a nation-sized family headed by a patriarch of unique wisdom and virtue, in a secular, 21st-century version of the mandate of Heaven. If forced to choose between those competing models, bet on cold, bureaucratic control to win out. For Mr Xi and his team learned their own lesson from the Soviet Union’s fall, five years after the Chernobyl disaster. Expressions of public love for Mr Xi, the “People’s Leader”, are all very well. But keeping power is what counts. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “The politics of pandemics”