As hundreds of millions are impacted by historic flooding in China, the Communist Party leadership’s noticeable absence drew the attention of citizens and China analysts.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping did not show up in public for 21 days until July 21, when he hosted an economic seminar in Beijing.
Then, on Wednesday, he visited the Siping Battle Memorial Hall in northeastern China’s Jilin province. During China’s civil war, from March 1946 to March 1948, the Kuomintang (KMT) and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) fought four grueling battles in Siping, which killed at least 55,000 soldiers from both sides. The CCP won the first and last battle, while the KMT won the second and third ones.
On both occasions, he did not mention the severe flooding in at least 27 Chinese provinces and regions—caused by heavy rainfall since June. Nor have Xi or other members of the Politburo Standing Committee—the Party’s most powerful decision-making body—visited the disaster areas to command relief tasks, as their predecessors did. Only Premier Li Keqiang has made a brief visit to a flooded village in early July.
The CCP’s top leaders have not appeared much in public throughout 2020.
U.S.-based China political affairs commentator Zhong Yuan noted that this is unusual for the Party. He raised the question of whether the senior officials left Beijing in order to avoid contracting the CCP virus.
On the afternoon of July 21, Xi hosted a seminar for entrepreneurs in Beijing, joined by two Politburo standing committee members Wang Huning and Han Zheng, as well as other senior central government officials.
Executives at some of China’s biggest firms were in attendance: Chen Zongnian, chairman and Party leader of Hikvision, the surveillance equipment manufacturer; Ning Gaoning, chairman and Party leader of Sinochem, a state-run oil and gas conglomerate; Huang Li, chairman of Wuhan Guide Infrared, a manufacturer of infrared thermal imaging equipment; Jiang Bin, chairman of Goertek, an acoustic components company; Hsiao-Wuen Hon, chairman of Microsoft’s Asia-Pacific R&D Group; and Zhao Bingdi, president of Panasonic China.
At the seminar, Xi mentioned “power-to-money trading” between CCP officials and companies, as well as commercial bribery, according to state media reports, hinting that corruption was a big problem in the country.
Xi claimed that the Chinese economy was in good shape, but also made a point to encourage “the individual merchant.”
Earlier in June, individual merchants were a concept promoted when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang proposed reviving street vendor markets in order to alleviate the unemployment crisis.
But Xi soon made remarks contradicting Li’s proposal, stating that China had a large middle-class population.
With Xi making positive comments on individual merchants for the first time, some analysts said it could be an indicator that the economic downturn has gotten so severe that Xi was forced to reverse his position.
Aside from Li’s visit to a village in Tongren city in southwestern China’s Guizhou Province on July 6 and 7, no other top official has toured the disaster zones.
The highest-ranking official to be sent to the disaster regions is E Jingping, China’s minister of water resources, who visited Jiangxi Province on July 12.
Wang Yong, head of the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters and member of the cabinet-like State Council, has not yet visited the flooded areas.
Guizhou has experienced flooding since early June. Mudslides buried villages in Tongren and other cities since then, but state-run media have barely covered the news, while authorities have not assessed the overall damage or number of casualties.
Guizhou is one of the poorest provinces in China. In rural areas, many live in houses made of mud and straw, making them susceptible to storm damage.
On July 19, Guizhou Meteorological Bureau alerted locals that more heavy rain will hit the province, and with rainfall between 6 to 7.9 inches in the following 48 hours.
Heavy flooding has also damaged large swathes of the central and eastern provinces of Anhui, Jiangxi, Hubei, and Hunan.
Officially, authorities stated that at least 43 million people were impacted, with nearly 3 million losing their homes. But many suspect the true damage is even greater.
More rainfall is forecasted, as China’s three major rivers have overflowed and may have embankment breaches at any time.
According to state media, Xi hosted one video conference to discuss the disaster on July 17 and delivered two messages about the flooding to officials on June 28 and July 12.
Zhong Yuan commented on July 22 that it is unusual for central government leaders and provincial Party bosses to be missing during such large-scale catastrophes. “CCP leaders used to show up on the frontlines to create an image of being close to the people,” he noted.
Zhong analyzed Xi’s written instructions to officials, as published on state media, and the public reactions of each level official. He concluded that local governments have not followed Xi’s orders, nor responded to people’s needs.
“They don’t care about people’s lives and losses,” Zhong commented.
As Xi and other senior leaders have kept a low profile since January, Zhong questioned whether they are trying to avoid public appearances and protect themselves from contracting COVID-19—especially as Beijing recently experienced a new wave outbreak.