On February 4, Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States, prepared to address an audience of students, scholars, and businesspeople in San Diego, California. Before the ambassador could speak, a young Chinese man stood up and yelled, “Xi Jinping, step down!” Security quickly whisked the man away, and the event went on.
A handful of similar calls for the resignation of Chinese President Xi Jinping have popped up on the Chinese Web in recent weeks, from citizens who accuse the country’s leadership of bungling the state’s response to the deadly coronavirus that has spread throughout the country. Like the protester in San Diego these critical posts have disappeared almost immediately.
The coronavirus outbreak is on track to become the worst humanitarian and economic crisis of Xi’s tenure, but the Chinese president is certainly not likely to resign. In fact, Xi has spent seven years in power building a political system designed to withstand just such a crisis. He has centralized authority in his own hands, enhanced top-down state control, limited the free flow of information within and across the country’s borders, and adopted an assertive foreign policy designed to cajole and coerce other countries into doing as China says. For now, at least, the epidemic has brought into sharp relief the extent of Xi’s power. But the very existence of the crisis points to gaping contradictions and weaknesses at the heart of his regime. The longer Beijing takes to contain the virus, the wider and more consequential those cracks will become.
To read more of my analysis on how Xi Jinping has responded to the outbreak, see my article in Foreign Affairs.