In Coronavirus, a ‘Battle’ That Could Humble China’s Strongman

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations who studies China, said that the centralization of power since the SARS crisis did not appear to have strengthened expertise at the local level or the willingness of underequipped regional hospitals to report.

“I think the central health authorities are trying to be more transparent,” he said, “but the local government remains loath to share disease related information in a timely and accurate manner.”

Not all the blame can fall on the officials in Wuhan.

The central authorities still control the political and propaganda apparatus, which has sought to minimize the severity of the crisis. Before the standing committee’s meeting on Saturday, Mr. Xi and other senior officials went about their business as if there were no crisis, appearing at a banquet on Thursday in the Great Hall of the People to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

When he did speak, Mr. Xi emphasized the need for preserving public stability.

The phrase alludes to the fear of popular unrest boiling over, which is, as ever, the party state’s highest priority. It could become a reality if the epidemic, as predicted, inflicts sustained hardship on the economy and people’s livelihood.

“The truth is in a public-health emergency; it’s not just the medical professionals who matter,” Mr. McGregor said. “It’s the management of it in the government and in the public that matters, too. It’s hard to argue that they’ve done that well.”

Steven Lee Myers reported from Beijing, and Chris Buckley from Wuhan, China. Claire Fu contributed research.

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