The coronavirus epidemic in China is far more than a disease; it is the most serious challenge to the rule of President Xi Jinping and the direction he has taken China since he assumed power in 2012. The stakes are extraordinarily high. It is far too early to predict the beginning of the end of Xi’s political career, but the epidemic clearly is shaking China and Xi’s way of governance to its core.

Since the Chinese revolution of 1949, the central tension inside the country’s Communist Party has been between “reds” and “experts,” between ideology and know-how. This tension has real world significance. During the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957, as many as 650,000 Chinese intellectuals (or “experts”) were sent to China’s gulags because they were not sufficiently “red.” The Great Leap Forward marked the climax of red economic policies and resulted in death by starvation of some 30 million Chinese. The Cultural Revolution that took place between 1966 and 1976 saw millions more educated Chinese murdered by gangs loyal to party chairman Mao Zedong, the chief red of them all.

After Mao died, Deng Xiaoping ended the Cultural Revolution and reappointed experts to many positions throughout China. Deng put China on the road toward economic modernization. There was an uneasy truce between reds and experts. Redness did raise its ugly head, such as on June 4, 1989, when Deng ordered the People’s Liberation Army to crush pro-democracy demonstrations throughout China, killing hundreds.

Still, the general trend in China was to favor the experts. At one point during the 2000s, all seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the most powerful political body in the country, were engineers, a clear sign that, in China, the experts were in charge. In addition, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, China’s government, specifically the State Council and the Office of the Premier, grew increasingly strong, taking more responsibility for critical issues such as the economy and reforms of state-owned enterprises. The Chinese Communist Party was still all-powerful, of course, but the government was strengthening, as well.

Xi reversed those trends when he rose to power. He gutted the power of the government by expanding the number of “leading groups” within the party, which monopolized decision-making. It was no coincidence that he appointed himself chairman of most of those groups, including ones that oversaw economic reform, foreign affairs, internal security, innovation and technology.

In 2018, Xi effectively declared himself president for life, blowing up the architecture of political succession that had been constructed by Deng. Xi also launched a withering campaign against Western ideology, even ordering censors to remove books from the libraries of Chinese universities if their content was not sufficiently red. When Robert Zoellick, the then-president of the World Bank, asked Xi what his priorities were for China’s future development, Xi replied, “the 86.68 million members of the Communist Party.” In Xi’s mind, better red than expert.

But the coronavirus has challenged the system Xi has built like nothing else has.

Xi has been forced to bow to the experts. In a move unprecedented from a man who has sought, as the Chinese say, to become “chairman of everything,” last week, Xi appointed his formerly knee-capped premier Li Keqiang to head the leading group in charge of dealing with the virus. It was Li, not Xi, who went to the virus’s ground zero in Wuhan to supervise the campaign against it.

Why did Xi permit Li to move out from under his shadow? For one, unlike Xi, Li is an expert. He has dealt with epidemics. Not once, but twice. According to Ryan Manuel, a Hong Kong-based political analyst, Li was at the helm in Henan province at the tail end of a scandal during which thousands of Chinese who sold their blood contracted HIV. In 2003, during the severe SARS epidemic, Manuel noted, Li disciplined 800 officials in Henan to enforce health measures designed to fight the disease — far more than any of his counterparts in other provinces. Chinese netizens have hinted at a second reason. “At the critical moment,” a user wrote on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, “the person who heads a lot of leading groups is absent.” The post soon disappeared. Xi, of course, might be setting up Li as the fall guy in case the party doesn’t get the virus under control.

The best chronology to date on the path of the coronavirus, written by a Chinese reporter in Wuhan, underscores the tragic results of this battle between China’s red and experts. Within weeks after the virus first appeared on Dec. 8, researchers in both Beijing and Shanghai sequenced the coronavirus genome and confirmed the origin of the disease. Quickly, the chronology noted, China’s experts developed test reagents and distributed them to provincial centers for disease control throughout China. This was fast, professional work and it was shared with the World Health Organization.

At the same time, however, China’s reds were less forthcoming with China’s people than its experts were with the WHO. Instead of fighting the virus, the apparatchiks who take their orders from Party leaders were obfuscating, suppressing news of the virus and threatening with prosecution those who tried to break the information logjam.

On Dec. 30, the chronology notes, the Wuhan Health Commission issued an order to hospitals, clinics and other health-care units prohibiting the release of any information about treatment of this new disease. On each day between Jan. 12 and Jan. 16, the Wuhan Municipal Health Construction Commission announced that there were no new cases and no close contacts involving the virus. Meanwhile, the virus raged.

As the reporter noted, “Politics first. Stability preservation first.” This is Xi’s system. And now all of China — and perhaps Xi himself — will have to deal with its consequences.

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