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A year after coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China’s Xi declares 2020 a triumph

Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sept. 8. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — In many parts of the world, beleaguered national leaders would be loath to reexamine the year 2020.

In China, Xi Jinping was exultant.

Xi delivered a confident New Year’s address Thursday night that amounted to a victory lap for his handling of the pandemic response and a call for his nation to rally further under the Communist Party’s banner in 2021. The country’s front-line workers and civilians not only pooled their “drops of strength into tremendous power” to halt the coronavirus’s spread, Xi said, but China became the world’s first major economy to achieve positive growth this year as it completed his mission of alleviating extreme rural poverty.

“I am proud of our great motherland and people as well as the unyielding national spirit,” Xi said from behind his desk in Beijing in a recorded video. “With solidarity and resilience, we wrote the epic of our fight against the pandemic.”

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It was a stark turnaround from the early weeks of 2020, when Xi’s stock seemed to be battered as the coronavirus erupted in Wuhan, the nation seethed with anger and panic, and the Chinese leader was nowhere to be seen in public for days.

As soon as China got the virus under control in April, Xi toured Wuhan, and the government began spinning the disaster as a triumph of China’s people and its government. On Thursday — one year to the day since Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang first leaked reports about positive coronavirus tests to friends and was arrested by police for spreading “rumors” — Xi marveled at how front-line workers fulfilled their missions at the cost of their lives and how medical volunteers marched ahead without hesitation.

The 12-minute speech was simulcast on nearly all state media outlets and their accounts on social media platforms such as YouTube — which is banned in China.

Other than a brief line conveying sympathy to “all the unfortunate ones infected with the coronavirus,” Xi’s speech brimmed with positivity and nationalist sentiment as he spoke about China’s bravery and toughness.

Ignored were the controversial facets of a tumultuous year for China’s domestic politics and foreign policy. Domestic and international outrage over China’s initial pandemic response and its coverup, criticism of China’s muscular diplomacy, furor over its crackdown in Hong Kong and other issues were swept aside as the broadcast showed footage of Xi speaking cordially over videoconference with European leaders such as Angela Merkel of Germany, Emmanuel Macron of France and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

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“What we discussed most was staying united to combat the pandemic,” Xi said as he described holding “many talks with old and new friends” by video. “People from all over the world should join hands and support each other to dispel the gloom of the pandemic.”

Neither Xi’s speech nor the accompanying video footage made any mention of President Trump or increasingly acrimonious relations with the United States over the past year.

Xi’s bullish speech came as nationalist sentiment is surging in China as a result of the government’s success in controlling the epidemic and amid a torrent of triumphant state media coverage and a blackout on dissent. Although there are few sources of reliable public polling inside China, popular opinion of Xi has dropped elsewhere. A Pew Research Center poll in October showed that distrust of Xi has risen in many Western countries as well as in Japan, South Korea and Australia.

Even though most of the world would be eager to forget the past year, it has been seen as a year of success for China’s leaders, said Victor Shih, a professor at the University of California at San Diego.

“Overall, the party saw 2020 as a year of triumph and vindication, so the speech will reflect such feelings,” Shih said, noting that Xi has urged officials to have greater confidence in the superiority of their Leninist political system.

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For Xi, the speech set up a crucial 2021, an important year on China’s political calendar. China will host a number of events celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party’s founding, and Xi previously outlined a goal of turning China into a “moderately prosperous society” by that year as a central plank of his administration. Earlier this month, Xi said nearly 100 million Chinese were lifted out of extreme poverty since his term began in 2013. The extreme poverty threshold is defined by the Chinese government as about $600 year, which some critics say is too low.

On Thursday, he offered a vocal defense of party leadership since 1949, when communist revolutionaries seized full control of China, and he declared “decisive success” over poverty.

Xi compared the Communist Party to a small and vulnerable boat that “became a great ship that navigates China’s stable and long-term development.” When the party celebrates the centennial of its founding next year, Chinese citizens should believe that the country will “definitely realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” he said.

The hard work is just beginning, he said.

“A journey of comprehensively building a modern socialist country is about to start,” Xi said. “The road ahead is long; striving is the only way forward.”

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