What Xi Jinping’s visit to Wuhan says about China’s coronavirus recovery

March 10, 2020, 11:15 AM UTC

China’s President Xi Jinping is no longer ‘social distancing‘ himself from the coronavirus epidemic. In fact, on Tuesday, he landed right in the epicenter of it.

Xi visited Wuhan, which marks his first trip to the city where the coronavirus outbreak started late last year. Xi spent the day inspecting Wuhan’s prevention and control measures as well as visiting with medical workers, government officials, and residents. He spoke with coronavirus patients, too, but only via video, according to China’s state-run outlet Xinhua News.

Xi’s visit to Wuhan was a significant milestone in China’s battle against the coronavirus, since it signals that China’s government “believes that the situation is now under control,” said professor Zheng Yongnian, former director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore.

Beijing is eager to support the narrative that it’s on the road to recovery after its coronavirus infection count soared weeks ago and widespread lockdowns paralyzed its economy. Indeed, its official caseload is improving. On Tuesday, China’s National Health Commission reported 19 new confirmed cases, marking the lowest total in China since late January.

Xi was also in Wuhan to take a sort of victory lap. It was a chance for him to relish in the nascent turnaround of the city—and the country as a whole—that occurred under his watch, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a Chinese politics professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. “Xi wants also to show and remind everyone that he is the boss and hands-on regarding COVID-19, and that he has not delegated responsibilities.”

The trip to Wuhan, however, did not come without risk. On March 6, videos of vice-premier Sun Chunlan, a high-ranking central government politician and member of the Politburo, visiting apartment blocks in Wuhan went viral in China, as residents were seen protesting from their windows, with some shouting, “It’s all fake,” in regards to government efforts to contain the outbreak. There was no evidence of local resistance to Xi’s visit, but local authorities likely took precautions to ensure the president would not encounter any public dissent, said professor Willy Lam, of the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong

Nevertheless, Lam says, the “high degree of frustration” that still exists in Wuhan is understandable considering its 11 million residents made “immense sacrifices” during the on-going government-imposed lockdown that halted all transit to and from the city on Jan. 23. Residents feel as though they haven’t received enough resources—from medical gear to doctors and nurses—to weather the outbreak and the subsequent travel restrictions, said Lam.

Combating that public outrage may be another aim of Xi’s visit, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS University of London’s China Institute. On Tuesday, Xi personally delivered the message that China “is winning against COVID-19,” which might be enough to garner favor in Wuhan, which just weeks ago appeared on the brink.

As Xi tries to portray strength in Wuhan, the outbreak is worsening elsewhere. The U.S. reported a spike of 150 new cases on Monday and Italy announced nationwide travel restrictions and lockdown measures as confirmed cases in the country surged by nearly 25% over the weekend to top 9,000. Over 114,000 cases have been reported worldwide, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

Xi’s Wuhan visit caps a remarkable shift in narrative for China’s central government. After receiving intense criticism for the outbreak’s early escalation, Chinese authorities now seem eager to highlight the effectiveness of their own lockdown measures and the shortcomings of other countries’ containment efforts, Cabestan said. “Chinese propaganda is moving to overdrive to demonstrate that their one-party system is the best to rein in an epidemic, and much better than ‘disorganized’ liberal democracies.”

Despite that messaging, the central government’s early missteps can’t be overlooked, said Tsang. “There will still be… anger at the failure of the government to do its most basic duty, which is to protect the citizens and care for them when they are severely affected by an epidemic,” he said.  

Still, Xi’s power remains fully intact—a rather remarkable feat considering his grip seemed to weaken a month ago when calls for government accountability reached a crescendo in the wake of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang’s death from COVID-19.

“Xi has definitely taken advantage of this extraordinary epidemic to concentrate power in his own hands,” Lam said.

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