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China's Leadership Faces Growing Political Crisis Over Its Handling of Coronavirus


In China, the death toll from COVID-19 continues to rise. So does the ensuing political crisis for China's leaders. Political scientist Minxin Pei has been closely monitoring events in China from his base at Claremont McKenna College in California. He joins me now. Professor Pei, welcome.

MINXIN PEI: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

KELLY: Let's start with President Xi. I saw that he toured a hospital in Beijing this week, some other facilities. He has not gone to Wuhan, to the epicenter, in the way that Americans might expect their president to go visit a disaster area to show support. Why not?

PEI: It's a mystery. In retrospect, it appeared to be a mistake or misstep. For unknown reasons, he chose to stay in Beijing. And even worse, for about a week or so, he did not appear in public. So the tour of this Beijing neighborhood and the firing of the officials can only be interpreted as belated measures he took in order to reassert his authority and repair whatever damage that may have already been caused.

KELLY: You're referring to several Communist Party officials, regional Communist Party officials who were fired this week because of their mishandling of the epidemic. And what...

PEI: Oh, yes.

KELLY: ...Is your take on that? This is an attempt to shift some of the blame?

PEI: Shift some of the blame, but also to show that he is now in charge because you have to look at who is appointed to take over Hubei province. His name is Ying Yong, the mayor of Shanghai. When you look at his bio, he worked under Xi Jinping in Zhejiang province more than 10 years ago. So obviously, Xi is going to show to everybody that now I have my own people on the ground in Wuhan, and they are going to do a better job.

KELLY: To what extent is the Chinese public able to register criticism themselves? We've seen a crackdown on social media. I mean, that's always the case in China, but a lot of censorship in the wake of the coronavirus in terms of people being able to express questions and discontent online.

PEI: Well, there obviously has been crackdown since the outpouring of grief and anger over the deaths of Dr. Li.

KELLY: Dr. Li, this is the doctor in Wuhan who sounded an early warning about coronavirus.

PEI: Oh, yes.

KELLY: The police came and detained him for that. And then, of course, he later contracted coronavirus and died.

PEI: Yes. There was - after the outrage over Dr. Li's death, there was a clampdown, but not as thorough as I would fear. References to Dr. Li are not censored on Chinese social media now. The amount of message information on the Chinese social media is still quite impressive.

KELLY: And why is that? I mean, China I don't think of as being known for allowing freedom of expression online. Why are they allowing it more so than one might expect in this case?

PEI: Well, I think the Chinese Communist Party has a streak of pragmatism. It knows that at this point, you have a very fearful and also outraged population inconvenienced by all kinds of arbitrary measures. And if you clamp down, if you don't allow them even to speak, to tap on their smartphones, you're going to pour fuel on this fire. So the government now at least allows some more established media outlets, semi-official media outlets to report quite freely on the outbreak. And in this kind of situation where you have the country literally paralyzed, the likelihood of a mass demonstration is very, very low, practically nonexistent. So they don't have to worry about that kind of risk.

KELLY: And what about for China's government, which I know you have argued is already in an advanced state of decay? You've written about this extensively in past. Do you believe coronavirus hastens that decay?

PEI: Oh, yes. I think it just - the Chinese Communist Party's prestige and authority will take a huge hit from this because this is absolutely the worst public health crisis since SARS. And its impact is much, much bigger. And the victims this time are Chinese middle class in urban areas. They look at how the Chinese government has handled this crisis, and they have to ask this question, are we being governed by a competent government? And the answer has to be no.

The Communist Party basically has a social contract with the Chinese people. You allow us political monopoly. In return, we give you satisfactory governance. But now, the Communist Party is not delivering a level of governance that is satisfactory by the standards of the Chinese middle class.

KELLY: Professor Pei, thank you.

PEI: You're most welcome.

KELLY: That is Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.