Xi’s usually ubiquitous face had been pictured in state media only one time in the previous 12 days: a week before, when the director-general of the World Health Organization came to Beijing and praised the Chinese government’s response to the crisis in ways more often associated with party propagandists.
As the number of people infected with the coronavirus ticked up through 10,000 and then 20,000, as the death toll rose through 300 and then 400, Xi was nowhere to be seen.
Although the state media said he was “personally directing” and “personally planning” the response to the crisis, there were no photos of a man who has styled himself as the “People’s Leader” actually mingling with hoi polloi to fight what is being framed as a “People’s War.”
He was not in scrubs and a face mask meeting the health-care workers on the front lines. It was Premier Li Keqiang who got that assignment. And there is no footage of him inspecting the pop-up hospitals erected in Wuhan. Vice Premier Sun Chunlan was dispatched for that task.
This vacuum was filled — as vacuums are wont to be — with baseless rumors that Xi had experienced a stroke or been overthrown.
Those rumors were refuted Wednesday, when China’s state broadcaster showed Xi greeting Hun Sen on the red carpet in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
“Hun Sen says he is making the visit to show that Cambodia is a steadfast supporter and die-hard friend of China,” China’s state broadcaster said in its report about the meeting.
Hun Sen — who has spurned the United States as he has allied himself closely with China, which provides vast sums of money without making demands about human rights — provided Xi with much-needed political support during his short visit, which lasted just a few hours.
The Cambodian leader, who had previously said his regime would not evacuate citizens from China or cancel flights between the two countries because he didn’t want to “strain relations,” had asked to visit Cambodians in Wuhan. The Chinese government suggested he not.
Instead, Hun Sen told Xi that he “disapproves the radical and inadvisable restriction measures announced by certain countries,” adding that “panic is more dreadful than the epidemic.”
This echoed, almost word for word, Beijing’s condemnation of the United States’ decision to evacuate its nationals and advise against all travel to China.
Hun Sen was accompanied by his son, Hun Manet, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy widely seen as Hun Sen’s successor.
Xi’s reappearance should put to bed the rumors that he has been incapacitated in one way or another. But what remains to be seen is whether he returns to his version of a situation room.
Experts said Xi’s relative absence from the public eye during a time of crisis is probably a tactic to avoid direct blame for the way the authorities have responded to the coronavirus.
It was “extraordinary” that Xi could disappear at such a time, said Joseph Fewsmith of Boston University. “There is a sense that they have a crisis of confidence now that they have not had in a very long time,” he said.
It has emerged that doctors alerted authorities to the outbreak at the end of December, but information about it was suppressed while cadres scrambled and Communist Party meetings were convened in the first half of January.
Chinese people reacted with outrage on social media — since censored — when the Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman said China had briefed the United States on the epidemic 30 times since Jan 3. “They informed the U.S. but not us?!” said one now-deleted post on Weibo.
Furthermore, health officials have had to backtrack on their early assertions that the respiratory virus could not be transmitted between people. In the latest alarming development, doctors in Wuhan said Wednesday that a baby born at the weekend to an infected mother had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Someone has to take responsibility for the ongoing spread of the coronavirus, and he may not want to be that person,” said Bruce Dickson, a China expert and chair of the political science department at George Washington University.
This is a relatively common pattern among Chinese leaders during difficult domestic times. Xi himself disappeared in 2012, just before becoming general secretary of the Communist Party, also triggering rumors.
Then-leader Jiang Zemin was nowhere to be seen after the American bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, leaving his vice premier, Hu Jintao, to be the public face of China’s response. That is similar to Xi’s strategy now of letting his premier, Li, go to Wuhan.
“The speculation then was that Jiang did not want to get saddled with any blame that came out of it,” Dickson said. “Xi may be doing the same today.”
But in this time of crisis, it is not just Xi’s absence that is jarring, analysts say. It is the appearances that the state media have chosen to publicize.
Even Wednesday morning, after the number of coronavirus infections jumped by almost 4,000 in a single day to near 25,000, the lead story in the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, was about a visit that Xi made to Jiangxi province in May last year. It described Xi’s visit to a house in a village that was part of the government’s poverty alleviation drive, replete with details about the fridge and electricity bills and Xi’s inquiries about the toilet’s septic tank.
There have been other examples of prime news slots given to old speeches riven with tired Communist exhortations. This kind of coverage sounds “off-key” when the most pressing issue is the coronavirus outbreak, analysts say.
If Xi’s strategy is to avoid being associated with the response to coronavirus outbreak, it is likely to backfire on him, Dickson said. “Leaders can gain a lot of good will by showing sympathy and concern during a crisis, even if they can’t resolve it.”