Feted as the People's Martyr, the late Li Wenliang, left, and the People's Leader Xi Jinping during a hospital tour in Beijing this week. Photos: AFP / Xinhua

These are strange days for the People’s Leader. Earlier this week, President Xi Jinping’s mask-covered face returned to the front pages of China’s state-run newspapers after emerging from a media black hole.

It appeared to be business as usual after the ruling Communist Party hijacked the memory of whistleblower and ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, the People’s Martyr. On February 7, the unassuming doctor, whose voice was finally heard about the coronavirus cover-up in Wuhan, lost his personal battle against the disease.

He tragically joined the death toll that has now climbed to nearly 1,500 with up to 60,000 people infected since the Covid-19 outbreak in December.

Retribution from the online community has been swift. Demands for freedom of speech have echoed throughout Chinese chatrooms with the CCP and Xi receiving the brunt of the backlash before Beijing’s legions of censors moved in to try to eradicate dissent.

At the same time, the General Secretary of the Party simply disappeared. The only Xi Thought was where could he be as the government, like the rest of the country, went into lockdown?

“Since the death of Li Wenliang, it’s safe to say that something happened in China. Xi effectively disappeared for a couple of weeks, and containment measures were implemented unilaterally at village, county and city-district level across China, at least according to sources I’ve spoken to. In other words, there was a wobble in central power,” Chris Taylor, an associate partner with the Access Asia Group, a risk-management firm based in Singapore, told Asia Times.

‘Return to work’

“Xi is now back, visiting at least one hospital, and urging all Chinese to return to work to avoid major disruptions to the economy. If this [approach] is unsuccessful, Xi could be saddled with a lasting reputational stain that might hobble his grand ambition of overseeing the ‘dream’ of a Chinese century. When the going was good, Xi’s centrality to the governance of China made him a pillar of strength; in troubled times, he could equally become a weak link, with internal political consequences in Beijing’s halls of power that are as yet difficult to assess,” Taylor added.

Xu Zhangrun, a well-respected professor of law at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, went even further in his assessment of the situation. He was already a staunch critic of Xi’s leadership before the epidemic and has paid the price for his views. Last year, he was banned from teaching, writing and publishing but has still remained defiant.

“The cause of all of this lies with The Axelrod [that is, Xi Jinping] and the cabal that surrounds him. It began with the imposition of stern bans on the reporting of factual information that served to embolden deception at every level of government. They all blithely stood by as the crucial window of opportunity to deal with the outbreak of the infection snapped shut in their faces,” Xu said in an online essay entitled When Fury Overcomes Fear, which was translated by Geremie R Barmé for ChinaFile.

China’s Economic Observer dedicated its front page to the late Li Wenliang. Photo: Economic Observer

Since his views were made public, the CCP has regrouped under Xi. Back in December even though the coronavirus epidemic was in full swing, the powerful 25-member Politburo bestowed the title of renmin lingxiu, or “People’s Leader,” on Xi.

The accolade, according to media reports, rekindled memories of the cult of personality enshrined in Mao Zedong’s reign. It also cemented Xi’s claim as the “Chairman of Everything,” coined by the Australian Center on China in the World, a research institute.

Key to the new narrative is that the blame should squarely rest with purged local Party cadres in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. Even though it seems highly unlikely that Beijing was kept completely in the dark.

Read: Wuhan virus rocks China’s political elite

Read: China quarantined in intensive care

Read: Fallout from Wuhan virus could drag on for months

Read: Wuhan virus spreads to every region in China

As the Global Times pontificated in an editorial:

“It was the city authorities’ neglect of duty when they were slow to take measures in the face of the epidemic outbreak. But it is still wrong to ask people not to go outdoors after the most urgent and severe situation is placed under control. Our cities must be fortresses to shield us from the [virus] and any other pandemic, but they are also arenas of various economic and social activities. As people gradually return to their normal lives, the prevention and control measures must not be neglected.”

Although the epidemic has yet to peak, media reports suggest that Xi told leading Party officials that efforts to contain the newly-named Covid-19 had “gone too far.”

“With growth at its slowest in nearly three decades, China’s leaders seem eager to strike a balance between protecting an already-slowing economy and stamping out an epidemic that has killed more than 1,000 people … [with] Xi warning top officials that efforts to contain the new coronavirus had gone too far, threatening the country’s economy, sources said,” Reuters news agency reported.

To protect Xi and the inner core of the Party, the state-controlled media machine has shown the gear-changes of a Shanghai-made Tesla. CGTN, the global arm of Beijing’s propaganda push, raced into action through the words of influential presenter Liu Xin in an article entitled Don’t Kick China When It’s Down on China-US Focus:

“As another week draws to a close, the fight against the deadly coronavirus continues. But China is not only battling the virus but a wave of deeply repugnant and often racist-laden attacks. First came the cartoon published in a Danish newspaper, the Jutland Post, which replaced the five stars on the Chinese national flag with a pictogram of the virus.

“The cartoon was backed by Danish politicians, who once again retorted with cries of freedom of speech. But freedom of speech should not harbor freedom of discrimination based on race, nationality or any other denominator. Bats [which have been mentioned as a possible source of Covid-19] don’t carry passports. Foreigners can catch the virus too.

“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. On the cover of the latest version of the German magazine Der Spiegel, it reads Corona-Virus, Made in China, when globalization becomes a deadly danger. I’ve been told in these societies people are, in general, well educated and respectful towards others. But such headlines really call that into doubt. Could the publishers have been serious?”

Changing the narrative also involved focusing on those on the frontline of a conflict against a silent enemy. Again, the rallying point was General Secretary Xi. China Daily published a forensic account of his visit to a residential community in the Chaoyang district of Beijing and the Ditan Hospital.

Photographs of the People’s Leader, wearing a blue mask and a white coat, chatting to medical staff flooded Chinese media outlets.

“While preventing and controlling the epidemic, coordinated efforts should be made to keep employment, the financial sector, foreign trade, foreign and domestic investments and expectations stable,” Xi said as reported by China Daily, adding it was crucial to “uphold social stability.”

Stability above everything else is paramount to the Party. But moves to relax tough quarantine procedures for the sake of the economy comes with a serious health warning.

At the first major conference dedicated to fighting the Covid-19 outbreak, World Health Organisation General Secretary Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told more than 400 scientists in Geneva of the “grave” challenges ahead.

“With 99% of cases in China, this remains very much an emergency for that country, but one that holds a very grave threat for the rest of the world. We have to use the current window of opportunity to hit hard and stand in unison to fight this virus in every corner. If we don’t we could have far more cases and far higher costs on our hands,” he said.

Xi should probably hang on to that mask. He might need it in the months ahead.

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