Politics Watch: What is Xi Signaling with His Qiushi Speech and Remarks on Biosecurity?

◎ The following analysis was first published in the Feb. 20 edition of our subscriber-only SinoWeekly Plus newsletter. Subscribe to SinoInsider to view past analyses in our newsletter archive.

On Feb. 14, Xi chaired a meeting of the central committee for deepening overall reform and “stressed the need to strengthen areas of weakness and close the loopholes exposed by the current epidemic,” according to a report by state mouthpiece Xinhua. Xi “highlighted speeding up establishing a law on biosecurity and stressed that “biosecurity should be included in the system of national security.”

Xi’s remarks on biosecurity hint at serious problems with laboratory safety in the PRC and pose somewhat of a challenge to the CCP narrative that the coronavirus originated naturally from a wet market in Wuhan City. Xi’s biosecurity remarks also add credibility to a so-called “fringe theory” that COVID-19 had emerged from a laboratory, specifically the P4 biosafety lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

On Feb. 15, the Chinese Communist Party ideological journal Qiushi published a speech by Xi Jinping that was delivered to the Politburo Standing Committee on Feb. 3. In his speech, Xi said that he “made a request for the prevention and control of the novel coronavirus epidemic situation” during a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee on Jan. 7, and proceeded to list what else he had done to deal with the epidemic.

Xi’s Qiushi speech drew the attention of China watchers because he essentially admitted to knowing about the coronavirus outbreak at least nearly two weeks before the central government acknowledged the epidemic on Jan. 20. It was also unprecedented for Qiushi to publish a Xi speech just two weeks after he had delivered it.

Our take: 
1. Xi’s Qiushi speech and biosecurity remarks raise several intriguing questions:

  • Why did Xi acknowledge that he knew about the coronavirus and took steps to control the epidemic before the central government officially confirmed it?
    • Some observers have suggested that Xi was trying to fault local officials and play the blame game. Even so, Xi should know that he cannot escape ultimate culpability for the PRC’s poor epidemic prevention and control work as Party “core” leader. This makes it more puzzling why Xi felt the need to list out what he had done up to that point to curb the epidemic since he would shoulder the bulk of the blame regardless.
    • Some observers have suggested that Xi is playing the blame game now because he is confident that the epidemic is nearly under control and wants to start claiming credit. This hypothesis does not stack with the reality on the ground; while the CCP propaganda apparatus is indeed trying to sell the idea that the epidemic is petering out and the PRC has controlled the situation, local governments are still taking steps to prevent regular resumption of work and large numbers of medical staff from across the country are still being dispatched to Wuhan.
  • There is growing interest in the U.S. and elsewhere about the origins of the coronavirus, as well as increasing skepticism about the CCP’s COVID-19 “natural” origins narrative. So why did Xi raise biosecurity at this critical juncture and fuel the controversial “man-made bioweapon” or “laboratory accident” theories?
  • As a general rule of thumb, the CCP usually admits damaging information when it is trying to cover-up something more significant. What is Xi trying to hide?
  • Why would Xi issue statements about the coronavirus that contain damaging information or allude to damaging information that, at least at first glance, would harm his and the Party’s credibility and image?
  • The Trump administration often takes actions that are “politically incorrect” and has shown that it is unafraid to investigate events that one half of the political divide in America would deride as “conspiracy,” such as the origins of the Russian investigation. On Feb. 6, the Trump administration ordered the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy to “rapidly” investigate the origins of the virus in order to address both the current spread and “inform future outbreak preparation and better understand animal/human and environmental transmission aspects of coronaviruses.” Should the Wuhan epidemic get “out of hand” at a later date or the spread of COVID-19 outside China reach pandemic levels, the Trump administration will likely push Beijing hard for more information about the origins of the coronavirus to better fight the epidemic at home and abroad. And in pressuring Beijing, the Trump administration could demand that Xi be more forthcoming about the links between regime biosecurity and COVID-19, or the PRC should get ready to face tough U.S. sanctions. Did Xi already account for the aforementioned scenario before the publication of his recent coronavirus statements, and if so, why is Xi willing to take the risk?

2. In analyzing Xi’s Feb. 14 remarks on biosecurity and the Qiushi speech published on Feb. 15 together with coronavirus-related developments and signs of CCP factionalism in the prior weeks, as well as the political background of coronavirus research in the PRC, we reached the following conclusions:

  • Xi and the central government could be laying the groundwork to shift the CCP’s official narrative on the origins of the coronavirus should the need arise.
  • Xi’s political rivals are taking advantage of the epidemic to undermine and seriously challenge his leadership.
  • Xi’s seemingly counterintuitive Qiushi speech and biosecurity remarks are part of a broader effort to counter his political opponents in the short- and long-term.
  • The “you die, I live” factional struggle in the CCP elite has turned white-hot in recent weeks in large part due to the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. In examining various recent factionalism signs and the political background of coronavirus research in the PRC, it cannot be ruled out that there is a connection between the coronavirus’s origins and the CCP factional struggle.

3. We believe that Xi Jinping’s coronavirus statements have far-reaching political implications for himself and the PRC. Our full analysis will be presented in a forthcoming special report. SinoInsider subscribers will receive a free digital copy of the special report when it becomes available.