What are the challenges for China under Xi’s one-man rule?

Chinese philosopher Confucius once said: “We can acquire wisdom via three different methods. The first and most honourable is reflection. second, and easiest, is imitation. by experience, which is the most bitter, comes third.” Unfortunately, because China refused to learn from others’ mistakes when it came to COVID-19, it is now suffering greatly. 

China believed it was more intelligent than everyone else under Chairman Xi Jinping. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Xi was actually seeking adamant exceptionalism, believing it could accomplish things that no other country on Earth could, rather than wisdom.

Where others failed, Xi and his apparatchiks thought China could beat the coronavirus with the advantages of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” alone. Thus, for three long years, China invested heavily in an intolerant policy of zero COVID, locking down whole cities at a time. It also created an enormous army of white-suited and masked minions who tested, bullied and strutted about the country to impose the emperor’s will.

The fight against COVID in China utilised millions of people. However, many of these employees were immediately let go after Beijing dramatically changed its health policy. Furthermore, if the CCP had faithfully committed itself to its zero-COVID programme, few of these contractors would have anticipated the abrupt turnaround. 

Of then, the CCP has a lot of experience eliminating populist dissent, so perhaps it believed it could defeat COVID with the same effectiveness. 

The people of China have long put up with harsh emperors and masters throughout its millennia-old history. Unfortunately, the CCP is not showing any more compassion than its predecessors, and once again, the people are forced to face the costs.

Deaths are occurring in their thousands, but these are rarely ascribed to COVID, thanks to official obfuscation over data. Yet the truth cannot be hidden. In early January, for instance, the Chinese Academy of Engineering said on its website that 20 members had died between 15 December 2022 and 4 January alone. To put this in perspective, this was more academy members than typically die in a whole year.

As recently as December 13, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan claimed Beijing had only “fifty critically ill COVID-19 patients…currently hospitalized, most of whom have preexisting conditions”. This was in stark contrast to body bags accumulating in hospital corridors, and caskets piling up at crematoriums.

Instead of building up a supply of medicine, Xi opted for unworkable solutions like mass testing and internment camps. Due to lack of official approval, patients in China must pay the market price of CNY2,980 (USD427) for a course of Paxlovid antiviral medication. Paxlovid, on the other hand, is free in the USA. Xi has also resisted importing mRNA vaccinations from the West because doing so would be an admission that China’s own vaccines are subpar. He seemed to prefer letting thousands of people perish over making such an admission.

Last October’s 20th National Congress was the acme of Xi’s reputation last year, but the sheen of his crown was rapidly tarnished by year-end events as China abandoned its anti- COVID bulwarks.

Ironically, Xi’s success on that ceremonial occasion in Beijing, his unrivalled power and authority with no successor in sight, was a critical factor in the disaster that unfolded in December. Unfortunately, one man’s decisions dramatically affected the lives of 1.4 billion individuals who have no direct say in electing him.

Wise council or alternative viewpoints from government members are in short supply, especially after Xi installed all his loyal favourites last October and shattered the hard-won concept of collective leadership. After all, who could dare question the paramount leader?

As Drew Thompson, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, commented, Politburo members were “selected because of their competence, and most importantly their ideological alignment and loyalty to Xi Jinping. It’s not a quota- or diversity-based system. It’s a type of meritocracy, where loyalty to Xi is the measure of merit.”

Xi has fixed perspectives about Chinese society, economy and foreign policy, and nobody can question these. Nor is there any kind of transparency in government decision- making. Add to that the CCP’s total inability to admit error or to deftly change course, for that would call the CCP’s infallibility and legitimacy into question.

The rapid national COVID U-turn was not announced to local governments, health authorities, or the general public, so they could not prepare. Undoubtedly, only the all-powerful Xi could approve and direct such a turnabout. Sadly, it’s possible that Xi has brought China back to the brutal excesses of the Mao Zedong era. But the story is still in CCP control. However, the reality on the ground is making its efforts laughable. For instance, Chinese professors who publish treatises on how Marxism helps China combat COVID-19 or experts who research the accomplishments of the CCP are condemned online of squandering their time and making little contribution to public policy.

Instead, just five years later, Xi’s 2022 report warned: “Risks and challenges are concurrent and uncertainties and unforeseen factors are rising.” Thus, Beijing must now guard against worst-case scenarios and potential dangers such as “black swan” events. Xi said the nation also needs to counter “external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade and exert maximum pressure on China”.

Since being crowned as leader of China in perpetuity at the 20th National Congress, Xi hasn’t had a chance to celebrate his accomplishments or do a victory lap. This may irritate the authoritarian ruler who views himself as a sort of national hero carrying out a holy duty for the CCP.  Sadly, Chinese history shows that the general populace has never been able to rule themselves, and I do not think they ever will. Instead, they allow a vicious elite to rule over them and keep them under control. For that, a high price is currently being paid.

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