In democratic countries, it would have had all the makings of a political crisis for senior leaders: A horrifying and preventable loss of life; a direct line from the disaster to national-level policies; a looming reelection.
In China, it’s only a blip for President Xi Jinping, as he prepares for a historic third term.
The deadly crash of a bus full of people heading for coronavirus quarantine over the weekend underscored the extent to which Xi has safeguarded his reign. After crackdowns on political dissent, the chances are vanishingly slim that this incident — or any others — could prompt organized protests against his rule.
“It is very difficult for public discontent to put pressure on Xi Jinping,” said Wang Hsin-hsien, a professor of East-Asian Studies at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “The Communist Party is very skilled in handling this kind of situation.”
The bus crashed into a ditch around 2:40 a.m. Sunday, as it rushed 45 Guiyang residents deemed close contacts of coronavirus patients to a quarantine center some 180 miles away. Twenty-seven people on board died.
The tragedy struck a nerve with the public, unleashing widespread anger and grief, possibly in part because it could have happened anywhere in China. Such late-night transfers have been common throughout the pandemic, as local officials struggled to meet deadlines to eradicate outbreaks.
“In fact, I have been on a late-night bus several times this year,” began one Weibo post by an anonymous woman in Shanghai, where residents endured a traumatic two-month lockdown this year, with many people bused into quarantine centers.
Cutting corners on safety to stamp out the virus has long been tacitly accepted by Beijing as long as public scandals were avoided, with Xi’s government making it clear the priority was stopping the coronavirus in its tracks.
Following the Guiyang crash, even usually pro-government commentators, like Hu Xijin, the hawkish former editor in chief of state-run newspaper Global Times, found it hard to simply label it a traffic incident, and called for a review of local pandemic-control policies.
On Tuesday, the public anger was largely channeled toward the city government in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province, despite its pandemic approach being far from unique in the country. Criticism of the central government’s policies was broadly censored on Chinese social media.
“There’s a lot of public criticism of zero-covid, but you don’t see this translate into significant criticism of Xi Jinping from within the system,” said Vincent Brussee, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, of the bus crash backlash.
In response to the crash, the Guizhou government announced Monday that three officials in Guiyang have been suspended and are under investigation. They were Zhu Gang, head of the city’s Yunyan district, Song Chengqiang, head of Yunyan district’s quarantine transfers, and a senior police official in the district.
Scholars said that Xi’s government was unlikely to back down from its “dynamic covid zero” approach for now, which Beijing has declared superior and more humane than the U.S. strategy of allowing the virus to circulate. China’s central government has repeatedly blamed deaths and suffering from the lockdowns on poor execution by local officials, while calling the overall strategy correct.
Despite the public dissatisfaction, organized resistance is unlikely, in part because Xi ordered a crackdown on political activists soon after he came to power in 2012. Many of the Chinese Communist Party’s most outspoken critics were imprisoned or otherwise silenced.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said Xi had enjoyed broad grass-roots popularity at home until this year, when protracted lockdowns became an increasingly stark contrast to the loosening of controls in other countries. But he said other officials were unlikely to challenge Xi because of it.
“I would go as far as to say that if China were to have a genuine open and fair election last year, Xi would have won with a landslide. Not any more,” he said. “Be that as it may, the drop in Xi’s popularity cannot change the fact that Xi now has the party machinery under his control.”
The pandemic has also provided Chinese authorities with practical tools to prevent unauthorized gatherings, as reflected earlier this year in Zhengzhou when angry customers tried to demand local banks return their deposits. Protesters reported their coronavirus-tracking health codes suddenly turned red, barring their entry into public spaces.
Beijing tightened entry rules this month, amid a spate of new outbreaks, requiring a week of quarantine for those arriving from anywhere in the country with even a single coronavirus case.
On Chinese social media, apparent veiled criticisms of Xi and his covid policies circulated, though some were quickly censored, and others were worded ambiguously.
“As expected, it’s the lowest-level workers who are pulled out to take responsibility. Even if you don’t stand trial while you are alive, you will be nailed to the pillar of shame in history,” Yi Shenghua, a Beijing-based lawyer, wrote on Weibo about the Guiyang crash, without specifying whom he was referring to.
In one censored post on WeChat posted on Sunday, a historian surnamed Zhao wrote a poem about an emperor whose subjects were being exploited to death by officials.
On Sunday, Guiyang officials had publicly apologized for the crash announced an investigation, and promised to prevent such accidents in the future. But they said they would continue the transfers of quarantine subjects. On Monday evening, according to an official post online, the city’s party secretary told officials that there was no room for them to slack in epidemic control.
Chiang reported from Taipei, Taiwan, and Li from Seoul. Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.