WUHAN, China — President Xi Jinping strode onstage before an adoring audience in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing less than three weeks ago, trumpeting his successes in steering China through a tumultuous year and promising “landmark” progress in 2020.
“Every single Chinese person, every member of the Chinese nation, should feel proud to live in this great era,” he declared to applause on the day before the Lunar New Year holiday. “Our progress will not be halted by any storms and tempests.”
Mr. Xi made no mention of a dangerous new coronavirus that had already taken tenacious hold in the country. As he spoke, the government was locking down Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, in a frantic attempt to stop the virus spreading from its epicenter.
Now, Mr. Xi faces an accelerating health crisis that is also a political one: a profound test of the authoritarian system he has built around himself over the past seven years. As the Chinese government struggles to contain the virus amid rising public discontent with its performance, the changes that Mr. Xi has ushered in could make it difficult for him to escape blame.
“It’s a big shock to the legitimacy of the ruling party. I think it could be only second to the June 4 incident of 1989. It’s that big,” said Rong Jian, a writer about politics in Beijing, referring to the armed crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters that year.
“There’s no doubt about his control over power,” he added, “but the manner of control and its consequences have hurt his legitimacy and reputation.”
Mr. Xi himself has recognized what is at stake, calling the outbreak “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance.”
Yet as China’s battle with the coronavirus intensified, Mr. Xi put the country’s No. 2 leader, Li Keqiang, in charge of a leadership group handling the emergency, effectively turning him into the public face of the government’s response. It was Mr. Li who traveled to Wuhan to visit doctors.
Mr. Xi, by contrast, receded from public view for several days. That was not without precedent, though it stood out in this crisis, after previous Chinese leaders had used times of disaster to try to show a more common touch. State television and newspapers almost always lead with fawning coverage of Mr. Xi’s every move.