Could the coronavirus take China's communist dictatorship down?

Monday, China's leader, Xi Jinping, appeared in public for the first time since a big swath of the country was shut down due to the coronavirus. 

According to the New York Times:

President Xi Jinping of China, the authoritarian leader who had been noticeably absent from public view since the coronavirus outbreak escalated into a crisis, toured several public places in Beijing on Monday afternoon. The appearances seemed aimed at countering criticism that Mr. Xi has been aloof amid rising public discontent with his government’s struggle to contain the crisis.

A day earlier, he held a "rare" meeting of top officials on the crisis.  He also went on television.  According to CNBC:

Chinese President Xi Jinping insisted the country will win the fight against the coronavirus outbreak, saying he will adopt more decisive measures to contain the spread.

Speaking on state television Monday, Xi said the country would speed up the development of drugs that have relatively good clinical effects against the deadly pneumonia-like virus.

Xi's comments come shortly after China's National Health Commission said it had confirmed more than 3,000 new cases and almost 100 deaths as of Sunday night. The world's second-largest economy now has a total of 40,141 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the country, with 908 deaths.

Reminder: the guy's a dictator.

In theory, he doesn't need to do anything.  He's got absolute power, and too bad if people don't like it.  His government has been pretty secretive up until now, too.  That Xi is now acting almost like a Western politician, seeking to rally the people as the coronavirus epidemic ravages a lot of the country and makes China itself a disease pariah globally, rather suggests a dictatorship under strain and trying to shore up support.  The BBC called that appearance "rare."  Foreign Affairs calls it "a stress test."

Or more likely, he's running scared.

Foreign Affairs, which has a very good analysis, notes that Xi is definitely being blamed by the Chinese:

Xi's system of governance has protected him from significant political fallout from the epidemic but has also created the very conditions that allowed the virus to spread so fast in the first place. Because the Chinese state apparatus is so centralized, information pools around bottlenecks and often fails to reach those who need it most. The mayor of Wuhan noted in a televised interview in late January that he passed information regarding the coronavirus to the relevant authorities early on, but he was not authorized to release that information to the public. Others were no more able to voice their concerns without fear of reprisal. When 34-year old Dr. Li Wenliang first raised the alarm about the virus in a small online chat group in late December, he was detained and forced to sign a statement disavowing his comments. His death from the virus on February 7 provoked an outpouring of grief and anger, as well as calls for freedom of speech across the Chinese Web, with the news of Li's demise garnering more than 1.5 billion views on the social media platform Weibo. Hoping to allay the public's anger, Beijing responded by promising to send a team from the CCP's anti-corruption body to investigate the local government's treatment of Li. for the crisis:

The root of the problem is that ruling Chinese communists refuse to permit the free flow of information.  In an epidemic, that's deadly; that's precisely what extends the duration of an epidemic, information being the one thing that needs to be shared freely, to prevent panic, to ensure the distribution of medical supplies, to obtain effective cures, to isolate transmission areas.  Foreign Affairs explains the details of this well.  So the more the Chicoms act like Chicoms, the worse the epidemic gets and the worse the effects.  To look at the comments section of the YouTube video about it, it's clear the locals know it. 

It's possible, and maybe likely, the epidemic will die out before anything really dramatic happens.  But there are so many signs of trouble already in China that it raises questions as to whether China's 73-year-old communist regime is going to survive this.

Quite apart from the disease, the country is already in a dry tinder state, with an extended uprising in the semi-Westernized Hong Kong side on China's coast and a vast Gulag-like detention of millions in the restive Islamic far west.  Its economy is faring poorly, and President Trump's trade squeeze on China has already forced a quick capitulation.  Now with the coronavirus striking at Wuhan, the physical center of the country, the flashpoints go across the country.  But it's not just the physical center that's significant about this Wuhan outbreak — it's also the industrial center, not the only one, but a very important one. 

The economy was bad before with just 6% reported growth (down from a customary 9% - 10% clip), but now it stands to get very bad, with quarterly forecast cut to 4.5% (a 25% drop on the quarter), which in China is a perfect condition for revolt. Here's a story about China's 1Q smartphone sales being cut in half. Here's another from Bloomberg saying two thirds of China's economy is now idled, and oil consumption has tumbled 20%

It's bad. And the regime's only legitimacy up until now has been in providing prosperity to the people since its communist philosophy after 70 years excites no one. Without the prosperity -- and with Wuhan's  citizen journalists showing penned-up people crying in despair for help from their balcony windows  -- the inevitable question to follow is why the regime is needed?

Now there are open signs of unrest and dissent. Here's a passage from the Wall Street Journal about how it's going for Xi:

The Chinese leader also faces anger and frustration over the government's response to the outbreak, emotions that swelled Friday with the death from the virus of Li Wenliang, a young doctor punished for trying to raise an early alarm.

In the province of Hubei, the center of the outbreak, hospitals are overwhelmed, medical and food supplies depleted, and some 60 million people are held under the largest quarantine in history. The virus first emerged in December in the industrial city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei.

While much of the nation's anger is directed at local authorities, blamed for trying to cover up the outbreak, many people also are channeling fury at the censorship and rigid, centralized authority that Mr. Xi has galvanized over the past seven years.

...and...

Anger, frustration and fear have spread among many of the Chinese trapped in quarantined cities, drawing rare outbursts of resentment.

During Mr. Li's visit, he asked a gathered crowd if they were getting used to the isolation, according to a video that went viral on China's social media.

"Don't we have to get used to it?" one person said in an unusually defiant tone toward China's second-highest leader.

Quote: "The myth surrounding him has shattered." Translation: Mandate of Heaven going down fast.

Do epidemics take down empires? Based on what I've found in research, apparently not by themselves, but they can be big contributors if a place is already in a weakened state. The Roman empire, the Maya, and others saw their declines advanced by plagues and the demoralizing impact such events have on populations.

The human situation in Wuhan is particularly heart-rending. There are more than 1,000 dead now. The scenes of people being dragged kicking and screaming to internment camps, where, if they didn't have the coronavirus when they entered, they sure as heck would if they got forced to stay in one, were disturbing, as I wrote about here. From China's citizen journalists, filming scenes, there's this. And this. And this. And this.

It reminds me of Albert Camus's existential masterpiece "The Plague." Glance at the Wikipedia summary, and all you can think is "Wuhan."

There's not just a plague hitting China hard now, there's also the broader picture that harsh dictatorships frequently wear out and collapse at about their 75-year-point. Think 'Soviet Union' or PRI Mexico -- and democracies often have sharp turning points at their 75 year marks. China's right there around 75. Year of the Rat is year one in the 12-year cycle in the Chinese calendar, and even if that means nothing to us, it's likely many Chinese people are noticing that there's a new cycle starting. It doesn't take long for perception to become expectation.

As strong and developed as China appears now, the other thing we know about supposedly strong, stable totalitarian dictatorships is how fast they can go. Unexpectedly, they like to say.

Image credit: YouTube screen shot from Reuters, CCTV, South China Morning Post.

Monday, China's leader, Xi Jinping, appeared in public for the first time since a big swath of the country was shut down due to the coronavirus. 

According to the New York Times:

President Xi Jinping of China, the authoritarian leader who had been noticeably absent from public view since the coronavirus outbreak escalated into a crisis, toured several public places in Beijing on Monday afternoon. The appearances seemed aimed at countering criticism that Mr. Xi has been aloof amid rising public discontent with his government’s struggle to contain the crisis.

A day earlier, he held a "rare" meeting of top officials on the crisis.  He also went on television.  According to CNBC:

Chinese President Xi Jinping insisted the country will win the fight against the coronavirus outbreak, saying he will adopt more decisive measures to contain the spread.

Speaking on state television Monday, Xi said the country would speed up the development of drugs that have relatively good clinical effects against the deadly pneumonia-like virus.

Xi's comments come shortly after China's National Health Commission said it had confirmed more than 3,000 new cases and almost 100 deaths as of Sunday night. The world's second-largest economy now has a total of 40,141 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the country, with 908 deaths.

Reminder: the guy's a dictator.

In theory, he doesn't need to do anything.  He's got absolute power, and too bad if people don't like it.  His government has been pretty secretive up until now, too.  That Xi is now acting almost like a Western politician, seeking to rally the people as the coronavirus epidemic ravages a lot of the country and makes China itself a disease pariah globally, rather suggests a dictatorship under strain and trying to shore up support.  The BBC called that appearance "rare."  Foreign Affairs calls it "a stress test."

Or more likely, he's running scared.

Foreign Affairs, which has a very good analysis, notes that Xi is definitely being blamed by the Chinese:

Xi's system of governance has protected him from significant political fallout from the epidemic but has also created the very conditions that allowed the virus to spread so fast in the first place. Because the Chinese state apparatus is so centralized, information pools around bottlenecks and often fails to reach those who need it most. The mayor of Wuhan noted in a televised interview in late January that he passed information regarding the coronavirus to the relevant authorities early on, but he was not authorized to release that information to the public. Others were no more able to voice their concerns without fear of reprisal. When 34-year old Dr. Li Wenliang first raised the alarm about the virus in a small online chat group in late December, he was detained and forced to sign a statement disavowing his comments. His death from the virus on February 7 provoked an outpouring of grief and anger, as well as calls for freedom of speech across the Chinese Web, with the news of Li's demise garnering more than 1.5 billion views on the social media platform Weibo. Hoping to allay the public's anger, Beijing responded by promising to send a team from the CCP's anti-corruption body to investigate the local government's treatment of Li. for the crisis:

The root of the problem is that ruling Chinese communists refuse to permit the free flow of information.  In an epidemic, that's deadly; that's precisely what extends the duration of an epidemic, information being the one thing that needs to be shared freely, to prevent panic, to ensure the distribution of medical supplies, to obtain effective cures, to isolate transmission areas.  Foreign Affairs explains the details of this well.  So the more the Chicoms act like Chicoms, the worse the epidemic gets and the worse the effects.  To look at the comments section of the YouTube video about it, it's clear the locals know it. 

It's possible, and maybe likely, the epidemic will die out before anything really dramatic happens.  But there are so many signs of trouble already in China that it raises questions as to whether China's 73-year-old communist regime is going to survive this.

Quite apart from the disease, the country is already in a dry tinder state, with an extended uprising in the semi-Westernized Hong Kong side on China's coast and a vast Gulag-like detention of millions in the restive Islamic far west.  Its economy is faring poorly, and President Trump's trade squeeze on China has already forced a quick capitulation.  Now with the coronavirus striking at Wuhan, the physical center of the country, the flashpoints go across the country.  But it's not just the physical center that's significant about this Wuhan outbreak — it's also the industrial center, not the only one, but a very important one. 

The economy was bad before with just 6% reported growth (down from a customary 9% - 10% clip), but now it stands to get very bad, with quarterly forecast cut to 4.5% (a 25% drop on the quarter), which in China is a perfect condition for revolt. Here's a story about China's 1Q smartphone sales being cut in half. Here's another from Bloomberg saying two thirds of China's economy is now idled, and oil consumption has tumbled 20%

It's bad. And the regime's only legitimacy up until now has been in providing prosperity to the people since its communist philosophy after 70 years excites no one. Without the prosperity -- and with Wuhan's  citizen journalists showing penned-up people crying in despair for help from their balcony windows  -- the inevitable question to follow is why the regime is needed?

Now there are open signs of unrest and dissent. Here's a passage from the Wall Street Journal about how it's going for Xi:

The Chinese leader also faces anger and frustration over the government's response to the outbreak, emotions that swelled Friday with the death from the virus of Li Wenliang, a young doctor punished for trying to raise an early alarm.

In the province of Hubei, the center of the outbreak, hospitals are overwhelmed, medical and food supplies depleted, and some 60 million people are held under the largest quarantine in history. The virus first emerged in December in the industrial city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei.

While much of the nation's anger is directed at local authorities, blamed for trying to cover up the outbreak, many people also are channeling fury at the censorship and rigid, centralized authority that Mr. Xi has galvanized over the past seven years.

...and...

Anger, frustration and fear have spread among many of the Chinese trapped in quarantined cities, drawing rare outbursts of resentment.

During Mr. Li's visit, he asked a gathered crowd if they were getting used to the isolation, according to a video that went viral on China's social media.

"Don't we have to get used to it?" one person said in an unusually defiant tone toward China's second-highest leader.

Quote: "The myth surrounding him has shattered." Translation: Mandate of Heaven going down fast.

Do epidemics take down empires? Based on what I've found in research, apparently not by themselves, but they can be big contributors if a place is already in a weakened state. The Roman empire, the Maya, and others saw their declines advanced by plagues and the demoralizing impact such events have on populations.

The human situation in Wuhan is particularly heart-rending. There are more than 1,000 dead now. The scenes of people being dragged kicking and screaming to internment camps, where, if they didn't have the coronavirus when they entered, they sure as heck would if they got forced to stay in one, were disturbing, as I wrote about here. From China's citizen journalists, filming scenes, there's this. And this. And this. And this.

It reminds me of Albert Camus's existential masterpiece "The Plague." Glance at the Wikipedia summary, and all you can think is "Wuhan."

There's not just a plague hitting China hard now, there's also the broader picture that harsh dictatorships frequently wear out and collapse at about their 75-year-point. Think 'Soviet Union' or PRI Mexico -- and democracies often have sharp turning points at their 75 year marks. China's right there around 75. Year of the Rat is year one in the 12-year cycle in the Chinese calendar, and even if that means nothing to us, it's likely many Chinese people are noticing that there's a new cycle starting. It doesn't take long for perception to become expectation.

As strong and developed as China appears now, the other thing we know about supposedly strong, stable totalitarian dictatorships is how fast they can go. Unexpectedly, they like to say.

Image credit: YouTube screen shot from Reuters, CCTV, South China Morning Post.