The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership is first and foremost concerned with its domestic survival. Since the late 1970s, the CCP leadership has relied on growth, nationalism, and stability to justify authoritarian rule, but these pillars are often in tension with one another. Rather than a monolith, “China” encompasses 1.3 billion people, 31 provinces, and a regime that must grapple with enormous internal diversity, using coercion, persuasion, and cooptation to remain in power.
The coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan came as a shock to this tenuous equilibrium — jeopardizing popular and elite support for the way the CCP has governed under Xí Jìnpíng 习近平. The government’s initial delays in confirming evidence of human-to-human transmission, and the silencing of local doctors who tried to inform their colleagues about a new SARS-like virus, elicited sharp critiques of Chinese-style authoritarianism and calls on Chinese social media for Xi to step down (links in Chinese).
Jessica Chen Weiss is Associate Professor of Government at Cornell University. She is the author of Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations (Oxford University Press, 2014). The dissertation on which it is based won the 2009 American Political Science Association Award for best dissertation in international relations, law and politics.