China’s Leader Wages a War on Two Fronts—Viral and Political Xi Jinping issued a call to arms against the deadly coronavirus, which has spread illness and dissent

Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2020


BEIJING—Faced with a coronavirus outbreak that so far has killed 630 people and infected more than 31,000 world-wide, China’s President Xi Jinping has mobilized the vast state machinery.

China has quarantined entire cities, thrown up hospitals in days, and deployed military doctors and Communist Party members to the front lines, a massive effort Mr. Xi likens to a military campaign.

That effort is intended to beat the coronavirus outbreak, and also win a battle on a second front—against the most intense volleys of public rage since he took power in 2012.

Mr. Xi publicly declared a “people’s war” against the virus this week, promising punishment for anyone disobeying government orders. He echoed the message in a phone call Friday with President Trump, saying he was confident of victory.

The Chinese leader also faces anger and frustration over the government’s response to the outbreak, emotions that swelled Friday with the death from the virus of Li Wenliang, a young doctor punished for trying to raise an early alarm.

In the province of Hubei, the center of the outbreak, hospitals are overwhelmed, medical and food supplies depleted, and some 60 million people are held under the largest quarantine in history. The virus first emerged in December in the industrial city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei.

While much of the nation’s anger is directed at local authorities, blamed for trying to cover up the outbreak, many people also are channeling fury at the censorship and rigid, centralized authority that Mr. Xi has galvanized over the past seven years.

“This is not just a public health crisis. He seems to be dealing with an internal political crisis,” said Xiao Qiang, a scholar who studies the Chinese internet at the University of California, Berkeley. China’s government information office didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Xi was already under fire from some of China’s political and business elite over his handling of the nation’s economic slowdown, the U.S. trade war and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. He has largely blamed hostile foreign forces, seeking to rally public support.

The coronavirus epidemic is different. Many Chinese feel directly threatened, propelling a crisis that strikes at the core of Mr. Xi’s claims of strong leadership, as well as the authoritarian system he champions as a model to the world.

Government censors are working to squelch dissent. A swift end of the outbreak would limit the political fallout. But its continued spread threatens Mr. Xi’s plans to rule indefinitely and could leave the Communist Party facing a serious loss of public support.

“The myth surrounding him has shattered,” Xu Zhangrun, a professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University said in an interview Friday.

The term “people’s war” was first deployed by Chairman Mao Zedong to describe a military strategy to mobilize the entire population. Mr. Xi, who has established himself as China’s strongest leader since Mao, has revived much of the imagery and vocabulary from that era.

So far, his martial tone appears to have done little to ease the anxiety of many Chinese, some of whom increasingly link the outbreak to his government efforts to roll back the relative freedoms introduced after Mao’s death in 1976.

In recent days, many in Wuhan have asked why Mr. Xi hasn’t come to see the crisis for himself. Premier Li Keqiang, the number two in the Party hierarchy, was appointed to head a task force on the outbreak. He visited Wuhan on Jan. 27, touring hospitals in mask and protective gear.

The next day, state television broadcast footage of Mr. Xi from Beijing saying he was personally directing the Chinese effort, in a meeting with the head of the World Health Organization.

Then, for nearly a week, Mr. Xi didn’t appear on state television’s evening newscast or the front pages of the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece. In his absence, public confusion and anger grew.

On China’s social media platforms, censors struggled to contain a deluge of comments that appeared to intensify after the death of Dr. Li, who has emerged a folk hero in online calls for freedom of speech.

“They have manipulated public opinion for decades,” said one post, later deleted, on the Weibo social media platform. “They blocked our mouths, but could they blind our hearts? Who are they deceiving?”

Social media accounts circulated a picture of Dr. Li, wearing a mask and bearing the words: “After today, you may not be able to say this name.”

The Cyberspace Administration of China, which regulates the country’s internet, went into overdrive to play down Dr. Li’s death, ordering news sites to publish only information from official channels, Chinese journalists said. On Friday, it ordered tighter controls to prevent people from using the doctor’s death to “attack the system, the party and the government,” the journalists said.

Xu Zhiyong, a former lecturer at Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, posted an online essay that said, “Medicine won’t save China: Democracy will save China.” He is a prominent Chinese civil rights activist, yet he rarely speaks so openly. Mr. Xu didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Many Chinese people have embraced Mr. Xi’s top-down leadership style, saying China needs strong, centralized government to combat corruption and escape a prolonged economic slowdown.

Others, though, said Dr. Li’s death reflected the stifling of dissent under Mr. Xi, and the advance of loyalty and ideology over initiative and open debate. In this view, Mr. Xi’s authoritarian rule prompts lower-level officials to suppress bad news, which many people are blaming for the spread of coronavirus.

In an unusually swift response to public outcry, the National Supervisory Commission, a government anticorruption agency, said Friday it would send a team to Wuhan to investigate Dr. Li’s death. Mr. Xi personally signed off on the decision, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Some in China suspect that Mr. Xi’s absence is part of an effort to claim credit for success against the outbreak or shift blame for failure.

“From the coronavirus to Hong Kong to the US-China trade war, Xi uses proxies to manage these issues, allowing him to blame others when these problems metastasize,” said Jude Blanchette, an expert on Chinese politics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang, tried to point the finger at Beijing last week, saying on state television that he was limited from disclosing the threat posed by the coronavirus. Mr. Xi has since decided to send a trusted political veteran to the city to help lead the virus-control effort.

In Wuhan, the government is telling local police, community workers, medical staffers and all the others involved in the effort that outstanding performances could earn them promotions. Such performances reflect “the strategic needs of the ‘wartime state’ of epidemic control,” said an article this week in a newspaper owned by the Ministry of Human Resources of Social Security.

Since putting Wuhan and two other cities under quarantine on Jan. 23, Mr. Xi has sent some 1,400 military doctors to Wuhan. He also ordered the armed forces to help distribute medical supplies, and commanded military hospitals and research institutes to assist.

Mr. Xi sees the military’s involvement, and the overall battlefield approach, as reassuring to nervous citizens, some of whom have been trapped in their apartments under quarantine for two weeks, according to people briefed on his instructions.

The lockdowns came as a surprise. On Jan. 19, while local authorities in Wuhan held a Lunar New Year’s banquet, China’s National Health Commission, a cabinet-level agency, sent a team of medical experts to the city, concerned by the spike in infections.

11 million people in Wuhan retreat indoors.

The medical group, led by a veteran of the SARS epidemic 17 years ago, concluded that the outbreak was more severe than local authorities had publicly acknowledged. The group, in its recommendation to top Chinese leadership, suggested that authorities lock down the city, if necessary, according to a Wuhan official familiar with the matter.

“But we all thought that was Plan B,” the official said. “No cities had been shut down even during SARS. The economic costs would be too big.” The decision to quarantine Wuhan, ordered by Mr. Xi, was unexpected, he said.

Many foreign health experts said such broad quarantines are rarely effective and instead cause unnecessary suffering among those not infected.

Anger, frustration and fear have spread among many of the Chinese trapped in quarantined cities, drawing rare outbursts of resentment.

During Mr. Li’s visit, he asked a gathered crowd if they were getting used to the isolation, according to a video that went viral on China’s social media.

“Don’t we have to get used to it?” one person said in an unusually defiant tone toward China’s second-highest leader.

Since then, Beijing has instructed local Communist Party members to reassure people and stop by the homes of people infected. A near-paralysis of the city transportation has made the order difficult to follow.

“Of course as a party member, I would like to step forward, but the question is: How?” a local tax official said.

Chinese bureaucrats are racing to build what they call a “wartime mechanism,” such measures as keeping a lid on the price of medical supplies and other essential tools in the fight against the coronavirus.

On the war’s front lines, medical workers in Wuhan say they are desperately short of medical supplies. A doctor at a midsize hospital said the facility hadn’t received any medical supplies from the government. The hospital was relying entirely on donations.

The doctor was critical of the orders that people isolate themselves at home. “Even at a large hospital like ours, we still lack supplies, “ he said. “How can ordinary people quarantine themselves at home?”