From the outset, damage control of the optics over the CCP’s handling of the novel coronavirus situation has been a topline strategy for Beijing’s rulers. The bottomline is protecting Xi Jinping and his control on power. INDSR experts have been closely watching this theme over the past month and in this comment, we pluck out some patterns charted from early February to early March that, together, still point to a situation which has far from stabilized for the Chinese Communist party chief.
Power trumps technical skills
When it was announced in April 2003, China’s SARS command center (全國防治非典型肺炎指揮部) comprised of 13 senior-level government and party officials, including the ministers and vice ministers overseeing the agencies for health; product and food safety; economic planning; agriculture; and science and technology. In the end, China (excluding Hong Kong and Macau) recorded 5,327 cases and 349 deaths, alone, over the eight-month SARS outbreak that also originated in China, according to WHO data.
Seventeen years later, on January 25 when the CCP formed its leading group to combat COVID-19 (中央應對新型冠狀病毒感染肺炎疫情工作領導小組), none of those five agencies were represented in the 9-member line-up. Instead, its make-up concentrated on Xi’s confidantes and his propaganda strongmen (See Table 1). Amid a fluid situation, China, alone, has recorded at least 80,790 cases and at least 3,160 deaths, so far, since the start of this year, according to WHO data.
“A good guess from the line-up of the leading group is that the short-term focus for Beijing authorities on the coronavirus is to steady hearts and minds and maintain social stability…and prevent the virus from spreading to the capital and impacting the power of the CCP and Xi, himself,” wrote Caroline Chen (陳穎萱), policy analyst in the Division of Chinese Politics and Military Affairs (中共政軍研究所), in the 7 February 2020 edition of Defense Security Weekly (國防安全周報). 
PLA ready or not?
To be sure, the state’s narrative of the PLA’s stamina and strength in the COVID-19 response has been deliberately burnished, though cracks have appeared.
Propaganda emphasizing the PLA's combat readiness training can be correlated to the coronavirus’ direct health impact on troops, which has been less reported by PRC media. During the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in China in late January, Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy (人權民運資訊中心) began disseminating reports of PLA forces getting sick, being quarantined, and cancelling training. It was a theme that was picked up by Taiwanese media by early February. The narrative was soon countered by the PLA’s own newspaper (解放軍報) in a February 8 article titled: “No hold ups in military combat readiness training nor epidemic prevention and control” (練兵備戰疫情防控兩不誤).
Twenty-four hours later, the PLA conducted two consecutive days (February 9-10) of military exercises around the Taiwan Strait and PRC state media reported on drills held by Chinese troops in their eastern theater. Whether the drills were done to protest Taiwan Vice President-elect William Lai’s visit to the United States or in response to recent US military activities in the waters around the Taiwan Strait, “the PLA can also use relevant combat readiness training to dispel rumors and shift the focus to emphasize its normal operation,” wrote Jeremy Hung Tzu-chieh (洪子傑), assistant research fellow in the Division of Chinese Politics and Military Affairs, in the 21 February 2020 edition of Defense Security Weekly. “In the near term, we can’t rule out the potential of the PLA continuing to provoke Taiwan as the epidemic worsens.”
At the same time, on February 10, a directive issued by three CCP organs dealing with military and discipline hinted at possible disorganization of frontline troops in handling the epidemic. The directive (關於嚴格軍地交往有關紀律規定的通知) laid down disciplinary regulations on the interaction between the military and the local people, listing 13 actions that were strictly prohibited, many covering gifts and favors. The directive can be seen as a warning to soldiers to behave, but may also be prompted by misconduct that has emerged within the PLA ranks in the virus fight, Hung’s research noted.
In a visual analysis by Che-chuan Lee (李哲全), chief of the Division of National Security and Decision-Making (國家安全與決策研究所), in the 6 March 2020 edition of Defense Security Weekly, a chart tracking the number of new confirmed cases in China, but excluding Hubei province, from the CCP’s official epidemic data neatly peaks and declines steadily after February 3, the day when Xi dictated at a Politburo meeting to resume work and production under the precondition of carrying out sound epidemic prevention and control. (See Chart 1)
“As soon as the resumption of work instructions came out, a lot of inconsistencies and even contradictions appeared between the central and local authorities, in data and reality,” wrote Lee.
The number of new COVID-19 cases from outside Hubei, the epicenter’s province, peaked from 890 cases and began to fall. Even after the resumption of work, many media were reporting multiple cluster infections in Chongqing, Suzhou, Beijing, Guangzhou and other places, but the number of new confirmed cases did not increase for the most part. By February 17, the daily figure had dropped to double digits (88 cases), and by February 25 it dropped to single digits (9 cases), Lee’s analysis showed.
Back in Zhongnanhai, the Politburo was divided over whether to delay – for the first time in a quarter century – the “two sessions”, the PRC’s annual parliamentary gathering. At a January 25 Politburo meeting, the so-called Xi faction pushed for keeping to business as usual to show its domestic and foreign audience that all was well, according to Chinese-language Bowen Press (博聞社) in a 28 January 2020 article. Xi likely agreed to delay the meeting to politically bide his time. INDSR’s Lee noted that for Xi, “what is more important is the guarantee of his power and the ability of the Communist regime to maintain stability and control the overall situation…delaying the ‘two sessions’ to manage risks and gain time to regain control of the situation should be a pragmatic choice.”
 Defense Security Weekly (國防安全周報) is our Chinese-language publication providing longer-form analysis by INDSR experts about news, security issues and trends that develop week to week.
 “Losing Control: The Coronavirus and Its Threat to Xi’s Power” Available upon request.
 The author notes the reports disseminated by The Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy (人權民運資訊中心) could not be verified firsthand, but what was important for the research piece was the fact that other media amplified the initial reports. Website: https://www.hkhkhk.com/english/indexen.html
 “PLA’s Propaganda Efforts Around the Wuhan Coronavirus Outbreak” Available upon request.
 “Coronavirus Effect: Xi Jinping’s Choice to Resume Production, Delay Annual CPPCC/NPC Sessions” https://indsr.org.tw/Content/Upload/files/1_習近平對復工復產及推遲兩會之決策.pdf