SEOUL, May 14 (UPI) -- Chinese President Xi Jinping has touted his country's battle against COVID-19 as a significant strategic achievement, but Xi's policy priorities, established well before the outbreak, tell a different story, according to a U.S. analyst.
Dan Garrett, an author and visual sociologist who has written about Hong Kong's protests, told UPI that Xi's most substantive hallmark policy is heightened national security.
Under the concept of the "Three Major Dangers," Xi has reinvented the Chinese Communist Party's national security apparatus.
The Chinese leader, who began ruling without term limits in 2017, sits at the head of Beijing's National Security Commission, which he created.
"All power flows through Xi," Garrett said. "All significant decisions and security-endangering information does as well, at least in theory."
Xi may also have a good handle on provincial affairs, in places like Hubei, where local officials have long been known to hide information from the central government. Before the lockdown in Wuhan in January, Beijing may have been sending officials to root out "ground truths," Garrett says.
According to the analyst, the central government was involved in the epidemic response as early as Jan. 7 and had "situational awareness" before Xi assumed control. Beijing may have been meticulously monitoring the situation in Wuhan even as Wuhan authorities were denying the occurrence of human-to-human infections. The disclaimer was finally struck down on Jan. 20.
"And while it is unknown who ultimately authorized China's 'reports' on the coronavirus outbreak to the World Health Organization and other nations at the end of December 2019, it is unlikely this occurred without approval from, or coordination with, senior Chinese leadership," the analyst said.
Chief among Xi's national security concerns have been potential pandemics, a "known threat to the Chinese regime" since the SARS outbreak in 2003.
The Chinese president's national security framework includes a security sector that deals with biological catastrophes like the novel coronavirus.
"Xi has also warned repeatedly for China to be vigilant for the dynasty ending threats of 'Black Swans' and 'Gray Rhinos,' most recently in January 2019," Garrett said. "Yet, here we are with the COVID-19 crisis."
Even as Xi remained wary of pandemics, as leader he rallied the country to embark on a "New Long March," a reference to the historical military retreat of the Chinese Communists that culminated in the rise of Mao Zedong and the consolidation of the party in the 1930s. In China, the historical Long March also evokes bitter suffering among Communist troops.
Xi was urging the country to reclaim the "center stage of the world," Garrett said. "Is the COVID‐19 pandemic part of that stratagem?"
Under Xi's leadership, China's ascendancy has been mostly depicted as the economic rise of a benign power willing to share its wealth with the world.
China's status as an autocratic regime could mean there may be more to the facade, however.
Nadège Rolland, a senior fellow for political and security affairs at The National Bureau of Asian Research in Washington, says Chinese projects like the high-profile Belt and Road Initiative are known for investments and infrastructure projects.
Less attention has been paid to BRI's emphasis on cooperation, including people-to-people exchanges, and BRI's stated objective: the founding of a "community of a shared future," according to the analyst.
That means, "implicitly, a China-centric sphere of influence under Beijing's leading authority," Rolland says.
"Any external criticism that counters the narrative China as a great, responsible, peaceful and altruistic power, led by a competent and dedicated party that cares for its people and for the rest of the world, is considered as a direct attack against the CCP itself," Rolland said.
Shielding the government from criticism has worked in Xi's favor, Garrett said. Behind the scenes, the Chinese leader has been absolved of personal responsibility for his handling of COVID-19 not only through purges but also by coercing Beijing's Politburo Standing Committee to accept collective responsibility for his policies.
"This ensures they cannot [easily] attack him without placing their own heads on the chopping block," Garrett said.
Xi's stifling of criticism has produced results. While the Trump administration has been vocal about a possible cover-up, and has pointed to "enormous evidence" the coronavirus outbreak began earlier in a Wuhan laboratory, less attention has been paid to more publicly visible events.
The declaration of a pandemic lockdown in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei Province on Jan. 23, for example, was announced beforehand, "thereby allowing those with the means to escape" to evade quarantine, Garrett said.
"On the one hand, China ordered an unprecedented lockdown of tens of millions," the analyst said. "But, on the other hand, it still permitted the massive movement of hundreds of millions."