- + The Coronavirus outbreak is freezing up Xi’s reputation.
- + Xi is a result-oriented leader and this will especially be tested now.
- + Xi has an array of grand, global plans for China’s rise and in turn, his legacy.
China’s President Xi Jinping can definitively be considered as a results-oriented leader. Practical in nature, Xi has been instrumental in building up China’s economic, military and social power since taking over from his predecessor Hu Jintao to the point in which several political analysts now consider global order to be defined by a genuine bipolar system; moving away from US hegemony.
To this end, Xi recently laid out his goals for China in his address at the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Republic of China, in which he promised to maintain long-term Chinese prosperity, uphold the ‘one-country two-systems’ policy with Hong Kong and definitively achieve China’s rise to the top of global order through a balance of economic and military strength. With this in mind, Xi is personally intent on fostering a revered legacy, which if things go his way, will be defined by the epochal project that is the Belt & Road Initiative.
However, what is interesting to observe is Xi’s reactions and decisions during times in which China, and by extension, himself, have come under criticism or faced undeniable challenges. For one, the infamous US/China Trade War, which appears to be coming to a close, sooner rather than later, was a true test of Xi’s resolve, in which he was eventually forced to make some concessions to the ever-demanding businessman-President, Donald Trump. Perhaps, a basis to label the outcome as Not-Hot, from the perspective of Xi. What this move did show, however, is that Xi is a forward thinker, whereby he is prepared to make short-term compromises in order to benefit China’s greater future propensity to prosper down the track, as is reflective in this initial first phase of the trade deal; as such, a future Hot prospect.
On the flip side, however, China’s unwavering claims over an array of territory in the South-China Sea is indicative of Xi’s determination to be a figure of might, who will not back down when it comes to protecting what China considers it’s own. All of these factors work to build up an interesting portfolio of cases for Xi’s pragmatic approach to foreign policy. Arguably, however, Xi now comes up against his greatest challenge that takes the form of not just containing and curing the fast-spreading Coronavirus but to equally ensure that the social and economic consequences of the epidemic do not substantially threaten China’s power.
Where to, Mr. Xi?
The first thing to state is that this will prove to be a particularly tricky task. To this point in time, 56 people have reportedly died and estimated numbers of people infected range from 2,000 to 44,000. Moreover, the issue has invariably become global, having not only spread to every province in China but now, also to officially 15 other countries in different parts of the world. This is a bad look for Xi and China, in which working under the concepts of Nation Branding and Soft Power, China is quite literally exporting an image of sickness and debility, and drawing conclusion to the infamous SARS case of 2003.
Resultantly, this is actively working against all the effort that Xi has put into altering global perceptions of underdevelopment, poor living conditions and social-economic inequality in China. To Xi’s credit, he has been exceptionally hot in responding to the crisis, exacting a range of measures in order to limit the damage. These include the rapid development of new hospitals to specifically cater for infected citizens, creating exclusion zones around Wuhan and Hubei province, and also ordering a range of travel-bans such that these infected regions are effectively placed under quarantine.
Does the Answer Lie Within?
Invariably, this response encapsulates Xi’s no-messing-about practical approach, which is accompanied by a willingness to make such top-down decisions on behalf of his citizens. Invariably, however, these measures taken will not eradicate the virus and to this effect, Xi will be desperate for a scalable cure to arise as soon as possible. Moreover, by taking a step back and recognising Xi’s generally long-term practical approach to foreign policy, one might be inclined to suggest that it has led to this failure to account for current issues on the domestic front. For example, the Coronavirus has been rumoured to have been spread from a local food market in Wuhan, which has been speculated of having been sourced from either a Bat or Snake.
Irrespective of the animal, one can draw one’s own conclusions over the level of sanitation and hygiene that would have been applied to this market, along with the state of the food source that would have been carrying the virus. To this end, perhaps this case is reflective of the fact that Xi needs to find a better balance of implementing sufficient and necessary public policy, aimed at protecting his lower-income population; more rigid public health and sanitation policy for food products should be an obvious starting point for Xi. After all, such policy could have made all the difference at this unregulated food market, which has now created an event that threatens Xi’s own coveted long-term legacy as the Chinese President.
These Things… They’re Infectious
Time will tell how far the Coronavirus spreads, along with how many victims it claims. Time will also tell how this crisis impacts Xi’s greater reputation and ultimate legacy. As such, Xi will remain defiant and won’t shy away from making the tough, pragmatic calls that he has become known for. But naturally, there will be underlying anxiety to resolve the problem as fast as possible without China losing too much face in the public sphere. With this in mind, every new report of increasing numbers of infected citizens becomes a greater stain on Xi’s standing, and simply put, this won’t sit well with him.
But it is largely out of his hands now, a situation which he is not used to. To this end, here’s hoping that in amongst all of his ongoing nation and power building efforts, Xi remembers to provide sufficient public funding for scientific and medical R&D.