Chinese President Xi Jinping made a public appearance Monday, donning a face mask and having his temperature taken at a “front-line” coronavirus facility in the Chaoyang district of Beijing.
Photos and videos of the visit – carried by state-run news agencies and television stations – did not deviate from the usual patter of publicity appearances by Xi and other Chinese Communist Party officials. But Xi’s appearance Monday capped a remarkably unengaged period for the Chinese leader at a critical time, during which he conspicuously avoided public attention.
Over the last 12 days, Xi briefly met with Cambodia’s autocratic leader, Hun Sen, but otherwise stayed away from the cameras, even as his country faced its most pressing public health crisis since the 2002 SARS outbreak.
Xi left it to other Communist Party officials to calm concerns over the novel coronavirus or to celebrate tireless medical workers. It was Premier Li Keqiang who instead headed to the coronavirus epicenter Wuhan to meet with officials and workers there.
In their carefully scrutinized broadcasts and releases, state-run media outlets sought to portray Xi as the man running the crisis response from behind the scenes.
But his relative absence did not go unnoticed.
Some suspected it was forced, with baseless rumors circulating that Xi had been overthrown or suffered a stroke.
Others argued it was a strategic decision. By avoiding public attention, Xi may have sought to duck responsibility for Beijing’s response to the crisis and to distance himself from the mistakes of the regional Communist Party’s leadership in Wuhan.
“Someone has to take responsibility for the ongoing spread of the coronavirus, and he may not want to be that person,” Bruce Dickson, a China expert and chairman of the political science department at George Washington University, said in an interview last week.
But keeping a low profile may no longer be a viable option for Xi, as his absence has fueled speculation and as public scrutiny has increasingly turned away from local cadres’ failings and toward more systemic complaints over the ruling Communist Party in Beijing.
Under Xi’s leadership, the party has worked to expand a system that, according to its critics, rewards loyalty and sanctions the bearers of bad news. As a result, it encourages local officials to turn a blind eye to problems that are not considered an immediate priority for the Communist Party, some of its critics say.
Frustration with that approach rose to a new level last week, following the death of Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang, who succumbed to the coronavirus. Li was among the first to raise alarm over the new virus in late December – at a time when officials may still have been able to contain its spread.
Instead of alerting their colleagues in Beijing, Wuhan authorities detained and silenced Li.
His death triggered a short-lived Chinese online campaign last week under the hashtag #WeWantFreedomOfSpeech, directed against what many viewed as an attempt by officials to cover up the crisis through mid-January and suppress warnings.
Censors deleted many of the online complaints, but officials announced an investigation into Li’s death.
It was unclear whether Xi’s appearance Monday was connected to the proliferation of signs of frustration among some Chinese citizens, but the president’s message was clear: Trust the Communist Party with confronting the outbreak.
According to state television, Xi acknowledged that the situation remains serious. But he added that the Chinese leadership would take further measures to contain the spread of the virus and prevent mass layoffs as a result of the economic fallout.
China, he said, would prevail over the virus.
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The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield in Fuzhou, China, contributed to this report.