When the unparalleled coronavirus outbreak swept China in December, President Xi Jinping remained largely silent about the health crisis in the world’s most populous country.
But in his annual New Year’s Eve address broadcast on state television on Saturday, the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong finally called for unity as he defended his handling of the pandemic.
“Since the outbreak of the epidemic, we have always put people first, life first, adhered to scientific and accurate prevention and control, and optimized and controlled prevention and control measures according to the time and circumstances. We have been coordinating and protecting people’s lives and health as much as possible,” he said.
Xi added: . . We are still struggling, but everyone is persevering and welcoming the dawn. Persistence means victory, unity means victory. ”
The ruling Chinese Communist Party is trying to downplay and distract from the worsening health crisis following President Xi Jinping’s decision. Lift almost all Covid restrictions Experts say it reflects the damage done to his credibility at home and abroad just as he is embarking on a third term in office.
“It is clear that Xi Jinping is seriously injured in the sense that his reputation and authority have been severely damaged,” said Willie Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “His claims that the Chinese system is the best in the world are now being seriously questioned.”
Before Saturday’s speech, Xi had not directly addressed the impact of the pandemic over the past three weeks, as infections reached new records and hospitals and crematoria across the country were flooded with the sick, dying and dead. It was overflowing.
Instead, as hundreds of millions of people contracted Covid-19, the Chinese military conducted naval warfare exercises with Russia, launched the third largest air invasion around Taiwan, and managed to stay within meters of U.S. aircraft in southern China. I flew a fighter plane in Ocean. Friday evening, Xi Had a virtual meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin Ten months after Moscow invaded Ukraine, he reaffirmed his support.
China on Friday reported just one death from the coronavirus the day before, despite forecasts suggesting this winter wave could kill millions.
The party is left with the daunting task of not being able to ignore the obituaries of deceased executives who are too remarkable. State propaganda parrots banal partisan language and offers little explanation to its hustling and distressed citizens.
Ram said so West, which previously claimed victory over the pandemic, said one of the “particularly pernicious” long-term threats was that “not only the ordinary people, but the disadvantaged classes, but also senior officials, Even their parents, retired senior executives, feel the harm.” ”.
Despite tight controls on public dissent, Chinese censors have struggled to stem the flood of complaints on social media. in most cases, Lack of advance warning or preparation For China’s resource-scarce medical system ahead of its reopening.
“If [China] If they were to open at the end of the year, what is the reason so many cities have been closed for three months this year?” said one social media user. “Why would you choose to open up in the winter, when the virus is most active and people’s immune systems are the weakest?”
John Delry, a China expert at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said, “at least,” party leaders face a “narrative problem” of “how to explain to the public what the hell is going on.” said it does.
“There has been a serious damage to public confidence,” he said. “The impact may not be immediate. But it is in the public reckoning of how capable their government is.”
“This is the worst start of Xi’s third term,” he added. “There is no doubt that this is his return to height.”
Last month’s abrupt turnaround, driven by relentless lockdowns and mass testing, followed slowing economic growth in the world’s second-largest economy and mounting public dissatisfaction with authorities’ strict enforcement of a zero-Covid strategy. It developed into one of the rare mass protests in the city. Late November.
Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a US think tank, said the political legacy of China’s coronavirus zero policy undermines confidence in Xi’s decision-making, including its establishment, longevity and mitigation. argued that it would.
“The most contested issues are the optimal timing of opening and what the government should have prepared,” she said. “The core is not whether Xi has lost credibility because it changed its zero Covid policy. Instead, if policy changes are inevitable, [why] Didn’t he do a better job preparing for the outcome?”
It may have come too late to restore Mr. Xi’s reputation in the eyes of a critical public, said Diana Fu, a China domestic policy expert at the Brookings Institution think tank.
“On the one hand, this policy reversal may be evidence that China’s political system under Xi is still adaptive and responsive to the cries of its citizens. It also underscores the incredible discretion you have,” she said. “The lives of our 1.4 billion citizens will depend on what decisions Mr. Xi and his advisers will make about when to close and when to open the country.”
As the chaotic scene unfolding in China dominates global news broadcasts, the image of competent virus control cultivated by the Xi Jinping administration has taken a heavy hit on the international stage.
Countries including the United States, Italy and Japan have imposed negative Covid test requirements on air passengers from China amid a lack of reliable official data from Beijing. Fear of new mutations of virus.
Elisabeth Freund-Lars, a non-executive fellow at the Pacific Forum, a US foreign policy research institute, said the move highlighted a “lack of trust” in Xi Jinping’s government.
“U.S. officials believe the Chinese government has been less proactive about the origins of Covid-19 and less honest about the number of Covid-positive cases in China.
“The Chinese government has allowed millions of tourists to travel domestically and internationally for the 2020 Chinese New Year, knowing there is a new coronavirus infecting the population. And when the infection rate became clear…it was already out of control in the US.
“Washington will never make the same mistake again.”
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu and Ryan McMorrow in Beijing