Xi Jinping's announcement gives China an opportunity to show environmental leadership. Photo: AFP

This is rapidly becoming the Year of the Virus.

As President Xi Jinping’s administration struggles to restore trust after China’s Covid-19 outbreak, a new narrative has emerged with the rest of the world cast as the villain.

The mantra appears to be ‘if in doubt, blame everyone else and dress it up as an international conspiracy’.

For the state-run media machine, the plot lines have changed to protect Xi and the inner circle of the ruling Communist Party after it was revealed that they knew about the scale of the unfolding disaster two weeks before informing the public.

CGTN, the global arm of Beijing’s propaganda push, set the tone last week in an article entitled Don’t Kick China When It’s Down by influential presenter Liu Xin.

“To imply there’s a connection between the virus and the Chinese nationality or race is wrong and insensitive, at a time when people are dying, and enormous sacrifice is being made,” Liu wrote on China-US Focus, a website for academic discussion.

On Tuesday, Yukteshwar Kumar, of the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, carried on the theme when he accused the West of stigmatizing the world’s second-largest economy.

“The West and the whole world need to understand clearly that no matter in which country a public health threat emerges, no country is powerful enough to have all the resources, all the medical facilities, all the manpower, all the expertise and all the kits available to combat against these sorts of epidemics within a few days,” he wrote in a commentary for China Daily, the leading state-run English-language newspaper

“The whole world should show solidarity, and jointly fight against this invisible enemy with China. The West does not need to criticize or ridicule the Chinese government or denigrate the Chinese people,” he added.

Since the epidemic swept through Wuhan in Hubei province last month, the death toll has climbed to more than 2,100 with nearly 76,000 people infected. Up to 60 million have been placed in de facto quarantine across the country in a move to curb the outbreak.

Yet transparency issues have bubbled just beneath the surface, triggering anger on social media sites and rattling Xi’s cabinet. In response, Beijing has launched a crackdown on critics who have dared to voice concerns over the handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Academic Xu Zhiyong, the founder of the social campaign New Citizens Movement, was reportedly arrested at the weekend in the southern city of Guangzhou after accusing General Secretary Xi of being “clueless.”

“The virus outbreak shows just how important values like freedom of expression and transparency are – the exact values that Xu has long advocated,” Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said.

Another high-profile victim appears to be Xu Zhangrun, a well-respected professor of law at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing.

After publishing an online critique of Xi entitled Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear, he was placed under house arrest by the security forces and barred from using the internet, according to media reports.

“They confined him at home under the pretext that he had to be quarantined after a trip,” a close friend told the London-based newspaper, The Guardian. “He was in fact under de facto house arrest and his movements were restricted.”

A climate of “fear” now exists as China’s central government closes down chatrooms of dissent. Moreover, every aspect of the coronavirus coverage on state-run media has Xi at the center of the message. 

Even so, that has failed to hide the damage which has been inflicted on the country’s political elite, especially after the death of “People’s Martyr” and Wuhan whistleblower Li Wenliang.

“Given that it was China’s prevailing ‘Ministry of Fear’ approach to freedom of information that allowed the virus to silently infect communities, it remains to be seen whether this doubling down will see Xi emerge as China’s savior or a victim of the sunk-cost fallacy – an increasing commitment to ever-diminishing rewards,” Chris Taylor, an associate partner with the Access Asia Group, a risk-management firm based in Singapore, told Asia Times.

“To be sure, China’s Party Chairman has enormous powers at his disposal – and he will use them – but he’s now facing an unprecedented shift in the Chinese public mood. He is undoubtedly facing the challenge of his political career. Xi has extensive experience at silencing viral ideas, but controlling an actual virus itself is outside his experience, so at the very least we can say he appears to be playing a high-risk game,” Taylor said.

Yet one of the “hallmarks” of an “authoritarian system” is the refusal to admit mistakes. 

Freedom of information is usually one of the first casualties, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out.

“The most lasting impact will likely be the effects this virus has on China’s politics. Precious weeks were lost as local officials would not assume responsibility lest central authorities subsequently blame them,” he said on the New York-based think tank’s website. 

“This paralysis is a consequence of President Xi’s consolidation of power, which has left provincial officials unable or unwilling to exercise their authority without the central leadership’s blessing. Xi’s signature anti-corruption campaign, arguably more of a political purge, has in many instances replaced capable technocrats with party loyalists.”

How this will play out in the weeks and months ahead is in the realm of clairvoyance.

But academic Yuen Yuen Ang, of the University of Michigan, has peered into her crystal ball and concluded that “Chinese politics and governance will not be the same” after the epidemic has finally been eradicated.

“Xi cannot avoid blame for the backlash against his restrictive domestic policies and assertive actions abroad, which had already begun to undercut support for him even before the epidemic. With the death of Li Wenliang, a doctor who was rebuked by state authorities for warning others about the virus, the failings of Xi’s top-down approach have been laid bare,” she said in a commentary for Project Syndicate.

“The myth that Xi and his supporters have sustained about the virtues of centralized control has been demolished. Li’s parting words, ‘A healthy society should not have only one voice,’ will remain etched in the minds of hundreds of millions of Chinese, who have seen for themselves that censorship can endanger their lives.”

Welcome, to the Year of the Virus.