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Will the Coronavirus be Xi’s Chernobyl?

A picture of Abraham Denmark in front of green foliage

Much will depend on what happens next.

A person and a statue both wear masks on the street to prevent infection from coronovirus during the Chinese New Year in Chengdu, China.
A person and a statue both wear masks on the street to prevent infection from coronovirus during the Chinese New Year in Chengdu, China.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, wrote in 2006 that the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, “even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.” He explains that “The Chernobyl disaster, more than anything else, opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue.” With China reeling from the coronavirus, some have begun to ask if this could be China’s Chernobyl moment.

As one may expect, Xi Jinping’s interpretation of Soviet history is different from Grobachev’s. In January 2013, less than two months after ascending to lead the CPP, Xi gave a foundational speech to about 300 of the Party’s elite, including the rest of the Politburo Standing Committee. In this speech, Xi described his fundamental view of the world and his vision for China’s future. In the middle of his remarks, Xi asked the audience a rhetorical question: “Why did the Communist Party of the Soviet Union fall to pieces?” He answered his own question declaring that Moscow had failed to uphold its founding ideology, causing the apparatus of the Soviet state to disintegrate. “In the end” Xi is quoted as saying, “nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist.” Taken together, these remarks suggest that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can avoid the fate of its Soviet cousin by remaining committed ideology and directed with strong, unitary leadership.

While Xi’s fate is less certain, while it is possible that he may emerge weaker from this crisis, it is also possible that he develops an even stronger political hand.

The New York Times recently published a compelling analysis of Xi’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic, arguing that it has sparked political dissent inside China that threatens both Xi’s leadership and the CCP itself. The article notes the trenchant writings of Xu Zhangrun and Xu Zhiyong – a law professor and a legal activist, respectively – both of whom wrote essays criticizing both Xi and the CCP. The article concludes that the epidemic has “exposed the extent of the party-state’s sickness,” echoing Gorbachev’s analysis of Chernobyl’s effects.

While the ultimate outcome of this dynamic will in all likelihood take years to play out, it is unlikely that the People’s Republic of China will go the same way as the Soviet Union as the result of the coronavirus. While Xi’s fate is less certain, while it is possible that he may emerge weaker from this crisis, it is also possible that he develops an even stronger political hand.

A Slow but Strong Response, with Consequences

After a slow initial response that reportedly included arresting medical professionals sounding the alarm and a weeks-long media blackout, Beijing has reacted with tremendous force. It established the largest quarantine in human history, locking down an estimated 45 million people – millions more than the entire population of California. Negative commentary, and even unvarnished news information, has been censored on social media and in communications, including the popular app WeChat. Official state media is filled with stories of heroism, unity, and sacrifice. State propaganda also seeks to blame any bad performance on bad local actors who undermine the state’s efforts to deal with the epidemic: primarily, inept or corrupt officials and criminals. The epidemic also put the Chinese security state on hyperdrive, arresting citizen journalists, critics, and whistleblowers (including the two Xus quoted in the New York Times). Hundreds of thousands of people have been dispatched to strictly enforce strict movement controls, making normally bustling streets virtually empty and keeping hundreds of millions of people inside for days, weeks at a time. Technology companies such as Tencent and and payments app AliPay, were used to monitor people’s movements and biodata, and prevent them from traveling. And in scenes that would fit in with the Netflix series Black Mirror, some regional Chinese security forces have employed drones to tell people on the street to put on a mask and go home.

In addition to the tremendous human cost of the epidemic itself, China has already paid a large economic and political cost. Factories have been closed, resulting in the sharpest decline in China’s manufacturing activity since the survey began in 2004 (going to a level even lower than the 2008 financial crisis). China’s services sector also posted its deepest contraction on record. Small and medium-sized businesses – which contribute more than 60 percent of China’s GDP and employ more than 80 percent of China’s workers – have been dramatically weakened. A survey of companies of all sizes found that less than half were able to get back to work by mid-February, and one third could only survive for a month with cash they had on hand. Moreover, there have been reports of broad dissatisfaction among Chinese people with both Beijing’s initial handling of the crisis and of its control and propaganda efforts.

What Comes Next?

The coronavirus is likely to have significant geopolitical implications for China’s approach to foreign policy. Beijing’s external ambitions are likely to come under close domestic and international scrutiny, with some in Beijing questioning whether Xi had jumped the gun with an ambitious and assertive foreign policy agenda seeking to establish China as the dominant power in Asia with a world-class military, arguing that the coronavirus had exposed the need for China to continue to focus on its own domestic development. This would likely not result in a significant relative reduction in China’s robust funding of its military (with hovers roughly at a sustainable 2 percent of GDP) or a rescindment of its territorial and maritime claims. Yet it may inspire some to call for Xi to consider a less assertive approach to international affairs that builds more space for China to focus on domestic development.

Beyond Beijing, some in the international community are likely to seriously question the prudence of deep connectivity with the PRC. While China has injected problems into the global economy before, the coronavirus may convince some in the international community to approach ties with China with a greater degree of wariness. Just as more countries around the world have grown concerned about the security implications of Chinese products (such as Huawei) and investments, the coronavirus has likely engendered deeper skepticism about the prudence of leaning too closely toward China. More broadly, for some in the United States and Europe, concern about China specifically is already evolving into deepening suspicion of globalization itself.

For some in the United States and Europe, concern about China specifically is already evolving into deepening suspicion of globalization itself.

Domestically, the long-term implications of the coronavirus for Xi and the CCP will hinge on how the disease spreads and how other parts of the world handle the crisis. If other countries have larger outbreaks in the coming weeks and months, Xi’s domestic legitimacy and power could be reinforced. Already, the CCP’s propaganda apparatus has been working overtime to praise Xi’s leadership and decisiveness. The World Health Organization has likewise praised China’s “bold approach” as “ambitious, agile, and aggressive.” One can imagine Chinese propaganda bolstering Xi’s record and justifying Beijing’s draconian measures if broader outbreaks occur in Europe and the United States: arguing that only the CCP, under Xi’s leadership, could stop the spread of this virus so quickly and effectively. Indeed, Xi’s visit to Wuhan appears to be an attempt to turn the outbreak into a political victory.

Internally, If China has indeed gotten past the worst of this outbreak and its economy is able to recover, one may actually see Xi and the CCP emerge stronger than before. The security state has certainly advanced deeper into people’s everyday lives, and it is unlikely to retreat. Moreover, there may be an opportunity for Xi to use the close controls established by Beijing over local Party officials to further strengthen the central leadership’s power and oversight over distant provincial authorities – a challenge that has plagued Chinese leaders for centuries.

Over the long term, even if China’s economy recovers, Xi will in all likelihood continue to struggle with revitalizing an economy that had already been slowing before the coronavirus crisis. Considering the direct linkages many see between China’s economic growth and the Party’s legitimacy, the coronavirus and its after-effects may well be seen as compounding already significant domestic challenges Xi was facing. Add to that ongoing challenges of protests in Hong Kong, an increasingly competitive dynamic with the United States, potential belligerence from North Korea, and lingering domestic political challenges – one gets a sense of the breathtaking pressure that Xi Jinping will confront.

Draconian measures seem to be tolerable in China, so long as they’re effective.

It is unlikely that Xi will be forced to resign. Although he was reportedly facing criticism from some quarters of the CCP before the coronavirus crisis, there have been no indications of an explicit split among China’s political elite. Yet despite Xi’s significant efforts to remove potential political competitors from the Party and from public life, this could all change if the disease flares up again in China as quarantines end and people begin to go back to work in an attempt to get the economy going again. Draconian measures seem to be tolerable in China, so long as they’re effective. A broad outbreak across China, combined with a severe economic downturn and potential international challenges, could spell a direct challenge to Xi’s leadership.

Yet a weakening of Xi’s political stature within the CCP should not be mistaken for a weakening of the foundational legitimacy of the Party itself. This is not Chernobyl. As Gorbachev noted, Chernobyl forced the Soviet Union to consider the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, which laid bare the hollowness of Moscow’s power and its sclerotic economy for all to see. While the coronavirus has certainly exposed both the CCP’s weaknesses in governance and accountability, those weaknesses do not seem to speak to the inherent contradictions at the foundations of the Party’s legitimacy. Moreover, the coronavirus has also served to highlight and reinforce some of the CCP’s (often disturbing) strengths, such as its ability to mobilize gargantuan resources rapidly to address a problem and the sheer breadth and strength of its security services. While Xi is almost certain to pay some sort of price for this disaster, it will not be nearly as steep as the price paid by the Chinese people.

Follow Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia Program, on Twitter @AbeDenmark.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

About the Author

A picture of Abraham Denmark in front of green foliage

Abraham Denmark

Former Vice President of Programs and Director of Studies; Former Senior Advisor to the Asia Program; Former Senior Fellow in the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States
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Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more