Comrade Xi’s Tiananmen Moment

Chinese President Xi Jinping. (File Photo: Xinhua/IANS) by .
Chinese President Xi Jinping. (File Photo: Xinhua/IANS)
Chinese President Xi Jinping. (File Photo: Xinhua/IANS) by .
Chinese President Xi Jinping. (File Photo: Xinhua/IANS)

The novel coronavirus or COVID-19 might not have triggered the zombie apocalypse imagined in popular science fiction but its impact on human society and politics seems no less cataclysmic. China, the epicentre of the virus’s outbreak, has begun to experience serious shocks to its political system even as the initial panic subsides. Speculations suggest that the outbreak and its management may be the greatest challenge posed to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) authority since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

There is a plot to pin the blame on officials to save the top leadership. The outbreak has come at a time when China’s president Xi Jinping was knee-deep in instituting large-scale reform measures aimed at achieving two crucial goals: one, preventing the erosion of the CCP’s power and influence due to economic stagnation and growing internal dissent and two, making sure that Chinese influence abroad cannot be contained by the US and its allies.

The CCP’s real cause for worry should be that at the time of the Tiananmen protests, there was no internet and the government easily censored the spread of information. In this day and age, anti-establishment sentiments are a norm and people trust independent sources and social media much more to get their information.

President Xi Jinping visits health centres in Beijing

It was proven true when it came to light that the Hubei provincial government had suppressed critical information regarding the new virus for almost a month and the Chinese citizens erupted in protest on social media in reaction to this revelation. Xi might be China’s most powerful leader in generations, one vested with absolute moral, political, and military authority, but this is precisely what can be the most damning thing for both his cult of personality and his Party’s hitherto unchecked monopoly over truth, information, and the dominant political narrative.

The Party has tried to insulate Xi by scapegoating provincial leaders but it has not proven to be effective. There is now an overwhelming degree of focus not only on whether he can survive this turmoil but also on whether his style of leadership could ever be excused for making half the world suffer in terms of lives lost and the price being paid for becoming deeply interlinked with the Chinese economy. In recent times, almost all of China’s worries – the Sino-US trade war, the Hong Kong protests, cyber and espionage allegations – could be made to look like foreign-hatched conspiracies attempting to undermine China’s stability. A gigantic public health crisis, almost certainly being mismanaged for political gains of the CCP, cannot be attributed to outside machinations.

HAMBURG, July 8, 2017 (Xinhua) -- Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meets with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump to discuss bilateral ties and global hot-spot issues on the sidelines of a Group of 20 (G20) summit, in Hamburg, Germany, July 8, 2017. (Xinhua/Yao Dawei/Jin Yu/IANS) by .
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump (Xinhua/Yao Dawei/Jin Yu/IANS)

There are indications that intra-Party critics of Xi Jinping are becoming emboldened with the leadership’s flanks left exposed by these recent developments. These critics had long opined that China’s problems have been mishandled in the rush to advertise big-ticket goals such as Made in China 2025 and China at 2021, 2035, and 2049. There is now serious indication that Xi will take measures to pacify the Party’s internal factions which are counting on flagging the cardinal mistakes made by the President in concentrating power and sidestepping Deng Xiaoping’s widely respected legacy of collective leadership and carrying out a quiet, incremental political agenda. The Party has its back to the wall and is soon going to be compelled into bringing out changes in its bureaucratic practices and propaganda methods to salvage popular support and political legitimacy. Instead of aggressively championing disruptive changes in the domestic political economy, it will have to appear more sympathetic and populist to divert negative attention from its ruthless capitalistic push for wealth and power.

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