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Coronavirus and Xi Jinping’s Crisis of Legitimacy

China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing, December 10, 2018. (Fred Dufour/Reuters)

China faces many crises. Coronavirus makes them worse.

The epidemic is the latest blow to the legitimacy of China’s ruling Communist Party and its leader Xi Jinping. When the party’s Central Committee ended term limits in March 2018, Xi emerged as China’s strongest leader since Mao Zedong. He ruled an authoritarian AI-powered surveillance state that global media hailed as the wave of the future. Or so it appeared.

The years since have not been kind to Chinese autocracy. Trade war with the United States slowed the Chinese economy and exposed divides within the nomenklatura. In March 2019, pro-democracy protests broke out in Hong Kong. They have not abated. Last November the New York Times published a stunning exposé of China’s prison-camp system in Xinjiang Province. Last month China lost face when it agreed to some of President Trump’s demands as part of a “Phase One” trade deal. A few days later Taiwan’s pro-independence president, Tsai Ing-Wen, won reelection in a landslide.

Now comes this nasty bug. Chinese officials, in classic authoritarian fashion, responded to the outbreak by downplaying its significance and hiding its magnitude. “Partly because the government covered up the epidemic in the early stages,” writes Nick Kristof, “hospitals were not able to gather supplies, and there are now major shortages of testing kits, masks, and protective gear. Some doctors were reduced to making goggles out of plastic folders.” The bill for this negligence and corruption was paid in lives lost.

The economy also suffers. Nor do the niceties of diplomacy override the fact that China is isolated. No one has reason to take its government’s disclosures at face value. Several countries have suspended travel to China. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas has called on the United States to do the same. A de facto ban may wind up taking effect as airlines and cruise ships cancel Chinese itineraries and passengers stay home rather than risk infection.

Among Xi’s initiatives is “Made in China 2025.” He wants to export supercomputers. What has he given the world instead? A public-health emergency.

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