China’s health crisis as a leadership crisis

Both the Chinese people and their leaders are debating the failings of top-down governance in dealing with the virus outbreak. That alone is a refreshing shift in leadership.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, left, speaks with people at a supermarket in Wuhan Jan. 27.

Every year hundreds of books are written about leadership, reflecting not only a rising desire to understand it but also evolving ideas about what it is. Yet there is nothing like watching a country actively debate it. And not just any country.

China, with a fifth of the world’s population, seems to be in serious introspection about its top-down, one-man rule following widespread anger at the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. The introspection is even evident at the top.

On Monday, the head of the ruling Communist Party, Xi Jinping, met with other leaders and admitted there had been “shortcomings and deficiencies” in the response. The public health crisis, they said, is “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance.” They also cited a need for a systematic review of “areas of weakness” in government.

For a party that regards both itself and its vision for Chinese society as infallible, this is a rare expression of humility, a character trait highly recommended in current books on leadership. Yet in another key trait – listening – the party has only stepped up censorship of any online criticism of officials. One prominent intellectual, Xu ­Zhiyong, wrote on social media that Mr. Xi should resign for his “inability to handle major crises.” Another, Xu Zhangrun, a law professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, wrote that the party’s restriction of freedoms only hindered the people’s ability to raise concerns during the early days of the outbreak. And instead of assigning party members by merit to serve the people, as the party did in the past, the leadership now deems loyalty to the party to be more important. 

“The political system has ­collapsed under the tyranny, and a governance system [made up] of bureaucrats, which has taken [the party] more than 30 years to build has foundered,” he said.

Many Chinese are trying to help their leaders be better leaders. As a prominent novelist, Xu Kaizhen, told The New York Times, “If they can rearrange the order in their hearts, we’ll see a very different governance style.” For China this is a healthy debate, made possible by a health crisis that is truly a test of leadership

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