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In China, political fallout from novel coronavirus outbreak continues

As novel coronavirus continues to plague China, the country’s president, Xi Jinping, fired two high-level Communist Party officials in the region at the outbreak's center. The move comes as both death toll and number of cases are surging, partly as a result of changes in the way infections are defined. John Yang sits down with Jude Blanchette of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to the increasing political toll the coronavirus is taking in China.

    Today, President Xi Jinping fired two high-level Communist Party officials in the region at the center of the outbreak. The move comes as the death and the infection toll are skyrocketing, partly as a result of changes in the way infections are counted.

    John Yang has the latest.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, could this outbreak threaten the political stability of the ruling Chinese Communist Party and of President Xi Jinping?

    Jude Blanchette is the Freeman Chair in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

    Thanks so much for being with us.

    Two developments today. One, the provincial leaders of Hubei province and of Wuhan, where this outbreak began, were replaced. Two, the Chinese government changed the diagnostic definition of this virus, which has now given a big jump in the number of cases that they're reporting.

    What are the political implications or reasoning behind each of these moves? Let's start with the provincial leaders being replaced.

  • Jude Blanchette:

    I think there's two broadly important repercussions from this or implications.

    The first is that Beijing, the central government, is displeased with how local-level officials have been dealing with this problem. There's been a lot of resentment at — in the city of Wuhan and also in the provincial level in Hubei with how officials initially were unresponsive to the spread of the virus and then worked to silence criticisms or independent opinions on it.

    But, importantly, Beijing also wants to signal that it's taking direct actions to deal with this. So, there's a convenient element of well — as well of Beijing signaling that it's not responsible, it's the local-level officials.

    And this is a long-held play in China's playbook of essentially throwing local-level officials under the bus as a way to distance themselves from whatever the crisis may be.

  • John Yang:

    And then changing the diagnostic definition, it sounds like a medical issue, but is there — are there political implications to this, having this number, a big jump in this number, just as they replace these local officials?

  • Jude Blanchette:

    Yes, the reasoning behind this was because there was a lack of testing kits available to do a real thorough test.

    And so leaders decided that it was better instead to have a much more conservative estimate. However, I also think there's a political reasoning here as well. You have this new leader coming in to take over at the provincial level, a man named Ying Yong, who's the mayor of Shanghai.

    He obviously doesn't want to come in and have any of the problems that should be on the ledger of the guy going out be on his books. So this was a way, I think, of signaling that he comes in with a clean slate with this new conservative estimate.

    And now he can really only go up from here.

  • John Yang:

    Could this be a threat to the system, to the Chinese Communist Party?

  • Jude Blanchette:

    In a word, no, in the sense that, if we're thinking a threat to the actual fundamental political stability of the Communist Party, we have a pretty poor track record in predicting when the Communist Party will fall. It turns 100 next year, I should point out.

    Does this tarnish the reputation of the Communist Party as a credible problem-solver? Yes, I think it does. The real value proposition that the Communist Party is supposed to bring is that, unlike democratic systems, which are quite messy and unable to deal with black swan events or to deal with long -term threats, the Communist Party has the will and the unity to resolutely take action and stomp these problems out when they arise.

    And as we have seen here, in the case of the coronavirus, it really was metastasizing for upward of two months before China's political system really kicked into gear. And by that time, as we now know, the virus has spread so widely that it's really been a difficult problem to contain.

  • John Yang:

    But one of the reasons for the stability or the legitimacy, I suppose, of the Chinese system is economic growth.

  • Jude Blanchette:

    Yes.

  • John Yang:

    This is now beginning to threaten economic growth. It's now showing up in some of the statistics. They extended the New Year's holiday, workers slow getting back.

    What would be the repercussions of having this growth slow because of this?

  • Jude Blanchette:

    So, the repercussions are not only significant for China domestically, but for the rest of the world and here in the United States.

    In order, in China, we're already seeing estimates that this may knock half-a-percent off its yearly GDP growth, some estimates of a full percentage. Globally, this is a big deal because China is the workshop of the world. This is where a lot of supply chains intersect in China.

    And so, right now, you're seeing companies, U.S. companies, European companies, Asian companies, really scramble to find where they can source components and deal with some of these labor shortages, as workers in China are quite hesitant to go back to — go back to the factories.

    So this is already going to have a significant economic spillover for the rest of the world.

  • John Yang:

    President Xi reemerged this week. He was touring a hospital in Beijing, not Wuhan. He was wearing a protective mask.

    He had been largely unseen, under the radar, at the beginning of this crisis. What do you make of that?

  • Jude Blanchette:

    I think the reality is, there's no good position here for Xi Jinping. Take the visible lead on dealing with a problem which you don't know how large the problem is going to get, and you look inept and unable to deal with the problem.

    Recede too far behind the curtain, and you look distant and unconnected with the realities that people are dealing with on the ground.

    So, Xi Jinping right now is trying to find a Goldilocks of just involved enough to where you look like you're in command, but receding enough to where you can blame lower-level officials if this goes pear-shaped.

  • John Yang:

    Has he found it?

  • Jude Blanchette:

    No, of course not. We're sitting here having this discussion now, so I think people are quite surprised by the lack of leadership that he has showed thus far.

  • John Yang:

    Jude Blanchette from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thank you very much.

  • Jude Blanchette:

    Thank you.

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