Mr Xi is often styled the most powerful Chinese leader since chairman Mao. Instead, the early response to the pandemic spoke to the brittleness of his power. The fate of many Chinese emperors through the centuries shows their authority to have been absolute until the moment of their fall.
Beyond Asia, coronavirus has also crystallised a shift that has left Beijing almost friendless in the west. There is no need to swallow the myriad conspiracy theories promoted by US President Donald Trump’s supporters to consider that China’s first response to the virus was concealment. Its subsequent threatening diplomacy, aimed at absolving the regime of all responsibility, serves only to reinforce talk of a cover-up. Australia, at the head of calls for an international inquiry, accuses China of “economic coercion”.
The suspicions run with the grain. Predatory investment and trade policies and military operations in the South China Sea have transformed European attitudes. In the words of one senior EU diplomat, the starting point for European policy towards China was, until quite recently, an eagerness to engage. Now it begins with pushing back.