No matter how bad the coronavirus epidemic gets, the crisis will not change how China is governed under President Xi Jinping. Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has strengthened the Communist Party's hold on power and developed a comprehensive national agenda from which all else – including domestic crisis management – must follow.
MUNICH – The coronavirus crisis represents the single biggest challenge for Xi Jinping since he became general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2012. Individuals and families across China are living in fear. Multiple Chinese provinces are under virtual lockdown. The virus has brought significant parts of the economy to a grinding halt, as firms instruct their employees to work from home. Politically, the blame game bounces between local authorities in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, and the central government in Beijing, with both sides mindful of the eternal principle of Chinese politics: When disaster strikes, someone must be seen to pay the price.
The wider world should show sympathy and express solidarity with the long-suffering Chinese people. These are ugly times, and the racism implicit (and sometimes explicit) in many responses to Chinese people around the world makes me question just how far we have really come as a human family. Too many people beyond China’s shores seem to have forgotten another eternal principle: “No man is an island,/Entire of itself.”
The third task is to expand the economy. Xi understands that the economy’s size, strength, and technological sophistication are central to all dimensions of national power, including military capacity. Moreover, without long-term growth, per capita income will not rise, and China will fall into the middle-income trap. Sustained growth is thus also central to the CPC’s legitimacy, as is the national effort to become a technological superpower, with global dominance in 5G, semiconductors, supercomputing, and artificial intelligence (AI).
The fourth goal is to incorporate environmental sustainability into China’s growth matrix. In the past, such concerns were ignored. But now they, too, are central to the party’s legitimacy. The Chinese people will not tolerate high levels of air, soil, and water pollution. Still, sustainability, including action to combat climate change, will always compete with priority three (economic growth), both in domestic industry and in the transnational infrastructure projects envisioned in Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).