Xi’s ‘authoritarian’ leadership in countering coronavirus crisis draws flak

A woman wearing a face mask passes a public health England sign, warning passengers arriving on flights into the U.K., that a virus, Coronavirus, has been detected in Wuhan in China. File   | Photo Credit: AFP

China’s health crisis resulting from the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus is mutating internationally into a serious critique of President Xi Jinping’s leadership style and the top-down governance model of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

A remark by the local leader of Wuhan, the epicentre of the disease, has apparently triggered an avalanche of international criticism.

In an unusually candid interview, the Mayor of Wuhan linked the late disclosure of the novel strain of pneumonia to the current regulations of the CPC, led by Mr. Xi, the party’s secretary general.

“I hope everyone can understand why there wasn’t timely disclosure,” said Zhou Xianwang, Wuhan’s Mayor. He added: “After I received information, I needed authorisation before making it public.”

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Public outrage

Domestically, a wave of public anger, fuelled by social media, has so far targeted the local leadership in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province.

Public outrage in Wuhan has spiralled following revelations on social media that local authorities had suppressed early warnings of the outbreak. Bloggers have identified eight medical personnel who had raised an alarm about the virus in late December. Police apparently accused them of “rumour mongering”.

But sections of the international media see in the Mayor’s observations problems arising from centralisation of power by President Xi, and the alleged inherent “inflexibility” embedded in the CPC’s DNA.

Western media reports, even earlier had slammed President Xi of pursuing an “authoritarian” leadership approach. That criticism peaked when the 19th party congress, in 2017, extended Mr. Xi’s tenure in office indefinitely.

Conflated issues

The Financial Times is quoting Wu Qiang, a former politics lecturer at Tsinghua University in Beijing, that the local government in Wuhan did not have the power to act decisively because they were at the bottom of a chain of command that started with the “supreme leader” — a Mao-era title recently bestowed on Mr. Xi.

The health crisis in China is also being conflated with the current leadership’s lack of success, so far, in defusing protests in Hong Kong. The blame for the re-election of a pro-independence leader in Taiwan is also being pinned on Mr. Xi.

Stung by the bad press that it receiving in the West, the Chinese leadership is pushing back hard.

Building resources

Government supporters say that without a disciplined 86 million-strong CPC at the core, it would have been impossible to build, within the space of ten days, a massive 1,000-bed hospital dedicated to treating coronavirus patients in Wuhan. They were referring to the 33,900 square metre Huoshenshan Hospital, which will be up and running by February 3. The round-the-clock construction of the facility is being live streamed, attracting millions of viewers. By February 5, a similar 1,600 bed hospital in Wuhan is also expected to come online. Chinese authorities say construction of two more hospitals in the nearby cities of Huanggang and Zhengzhou is being planned, State television broadcaster CGTN is reporting.

Besides, President Xi has ordered the People’s Liberation Army to the frontline to fight the war against coronavirus. “Military hospitals must make all-out efforts to accept and treat patients, and research institutions should press ahead with their research and development to contribute to victory against the outbreak,” state-run China Daily quoted him as saying.

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Printable version | Mar 9, 2021 11:33:06 AM |

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