Most recently, Xi emerged from the shadows on Feb. 5 to meet with Cambodian leader Hun Sen who was on a state visit to China. Before this, the Chinese president had been absent from the limelight for over a week since Jan. 28 when he met with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general at the World Health Organization.
As the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party are opaque, observers are weighing why Xi hasn’t been to ground zero or playing up his role in managing the crisis.
“While Xi has claimed to be personally leading the effort from Beijing, and the division of labor between general secretary and premier often call for such a sharing of responsibilities, there is an undercurrent of sentiment that Xi’s response has felt impersonal, more focused on avoiding a political calamity for the party than on the people’s health,” wrote analysts from risk consultancy Eurasia Group about the political cost for Xi in an outbreak situation that would “return to normalcy” by early April.
Xi is the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.
On China’s heavily policed social media networks, there has been sparse discussion about the country’s top leaders on a personal level, even in private chats.
Indeed, despite anger after “the tragic death of the doctor who first alerted the system to the disease, Dr. Li Wenliang, the brunt of negative sentiment has been focused on officials in Hubei (province) and Wuhan (city,) with little spillover to Xi or other leaders in Beijing,” the Eurasia Group analysts wrote in their report on Sunday.
But Xi’s absence from ground zero could be an attempt to protect the top leadership from the potential fallout of the health-care crisis, experts say.
“While Li is an extremely able manager and bureaucrat, he has long been sidelined by Xi and has come to be seen as relatively weak and feckless, leading to speculation that Xi has made Li a possible scapegoat if the virus is not soon contained,” Jude Blanchette at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, wrote in late January.