Editor’s Note: Recent issues of China Brief have presented two articles that analyzed aspects of the Chinese government’s response to the outbreak of a previously unknown coronavirus in the central Chinese city of Wuhan (The State Response to a Mystery Viral Outbreak in Central China, January 17; and The CCP Response to the Wuhan Coronavirus: A Preliminary Assessment, January 29). As this crisis situation has continued to rapidly unfold, new developments in late January and early February have further illuminated aspects of the state’s policy responses—in terms of both the medical and logistical relief effort, as well as the propaganda campaign to portray the ruling Communist Party as capable, decisive, and concerned for the welfare of China’s citizens. This article, the latest addition to our analysis of the political aspects of the ongoing crisis, examines a new “leading small group” created for coordinating epidemic response policies at the upper leadership echelons of the party-state.
Addendum: This article was first published as a Jamestown “Early Warning Brief” on February 5; it has since been updated for re-publication.
The “2019-nCov” virus epidemic that first appeared in December in the central Chinese city of Wuhan continues to sweep throughout the country: as of February 11, there were over 43,000 official reported cases of persons who had fallen ill from the virus, and over 1,000 reported deaths (Johns-Hopkins CSSE, February 11). Aside from the human toll, the epidemic has resulted in large regions of Hebei Province being placed under quarantine, which is placing a severe strain on the Chinese economy. The crisis is also presenting a severe test of governance for the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—which, after being caught flat-footed in December and early January, is scrambling to stop the spread of the disease and to mount an effective medical response for those already affected.
The second half of January saw a dramatic change in the posture of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) central government towards the epidemic. For the first three weeks of January, PRC state media organs downplayed the seriousness of the 2019-nCov outbreak, while emphasizing a steady stream of positive news stories: such as the successful achievement of government goals for poverty reduction, preparations for Lunar New Year celebrations, and the exalted status of CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping as “People’s Leader” (人民领袖, renmin lingxiu) (China Media Project, January 30). This changed around January 20-21, when Xinhua outlets shifted to coverage of the epidemic by reporting on Xi’s “important directions” (重要指示, zhongyao zhishi) for responding to the viral outbreak (Xinhua, January 20). This was followed in turn by the announcement of special meetings focused on the crisis: State Council meetings on January 20 chaired by PRC Premier Li Keqiang, and on January 23-24 by Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan (PRC Government, January 20; PRC Government, January 24); and a Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) meeting on January 25 chaired by Xi Jinping (PRC Government, January 25).
Then, on January 26 state media unveiled a newly-formed policy-making and coordination body at the top echelon of the CCP: the “Central Leading Small Group for Work to Counter the New Coronavirus Infection Pneumonia Epidemic” (中央应对新型冠状病毒感染肺炎疫情工作领导小组, Zhongyang Yingdui Xin Guanzhuang Bingdu Ganran Feiyan Yiqing Gongzuo Lingdao Xiaozu) (hereafter, “Coronavirus Leading Small Group,” or CLSG). In an unusual move for such a high-profile policy issue, Xi Jinping did not take direct ex officio control of the CLSG—instead delegating the chairmanship to the nominal #2 figure in the party-state hierarchy, State Council Premier Li Keqiang (李克强). Per commentary in state media, the purpose of the new body is to operate “under the leadership of the Politburo Standing Committee, strengthening unified leadership and unified direction for prevention and control of the national epidemic” (Xinhua, January 26).
The Role of Leading Small Groups in CCP Policy-Making
Leading small groups (领导小组, lingdao xiaozu) (LSGs) are the primary policy-deciding bodies within the CCP. Composed primarily of members of the Politburo or Central Committee—and usually chaired by a member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC)—the leading groups operate outside of (and above) the formal structures of both the party and state. Clustered at the top echelon of the party, LSGs determine policy guidance for the subordinate bureaucratic channels (系统, xitong) of the government.  The role of LSGs has expanded under Xi, who has used them as mechanisms for both the further centralization of power at the top echelons of the party, as well as for the concentration of his own personal power. Under Hu Jintao, the chairmanships of LSGs were more broadly distributed among senior CCP officials, but they have become far more centralized under Xi, who personally chairs at least half of the currently operating major committees. 
Many of the LSGs for core policy areas have been in operation for many years, and operate on more or less a permanent basis. Under Xi, some of these core LSGs have been redesignated as “central commissions” (中央委员会, zhongyang weiyuanhui), in an apparent upgrade of their bureaucratic status.  However, as LSGs are not strictly statutory bodies, both their number and areas of policy focus may shift over time. LSGs have sometimes been formed on an ad hoc basis for high-profile or crisis events—as now appears to be the case with the new Coronavirus LSG.
Membership of the Coronavirus Leading Small Group
LSGs normally operate out of public view, but this new LSG has been given a much more public face. State media has identified the formal members of the CLSG, sparing the need for the painstaking analysis (and sometimes guesswork) required to assemble a picture of the composition of a given CCP leading group. This somewhat unusual step indicates that the party leadership wishes to publicize the meetings and actions of the CLSG, as part of a larger narrative depicting an energetic response to the epidemic on the part of the central authorities. In addition to Li Keqiang, eight other members of the CLSG have been identified in state press, all of them members of either the Politburo or the CCP Central Committee. The full membership of the new CLSG is as follows:
|Membership of the Chinese Communist Party “Central Leading Small Group for Work to Counter the New Coronavirus Infection Pneumonia Epidemic” |
|Member (Romanized Name)||Chinese Name||State / Party Position||CCP Leadership Echelon|
|Li Keqiang (chair)||李克强||PRC Premier||Politburo Standing Committee|
|Wang Huning (vice-chair)||王沪宁||CCP policy czar for ideology & propaganda; senior member of the CCP Secretariat||Politburo Standing Committee|
|Ding Xueliang||丁薛祥||Director of the CCP Central Office||Politburo|
|Sun Chunlan||孙春兰||PRC Vice-Premier (portfolio for public health, education, and culture); former director of the CCP United Front Work Department||Politburo|
|Huang Kunming||黄坤明||Director of the CCP Central Propaganda Department||Politburo|
|Cai Qi||蔡奇||Beijing CCP Secretary||Politburo|
|Wang Yi||王毅||PRC Foreign Minister||Central Committee|
|Xiao Jie||肖捷||PRC State Council Secretary-General||Central Committee|
|Zhao Kezhi||赵克志||PRC Minister of Public Security||Central Committee|
A few points stand out regarding the composition of the new CLSG. The first point is that at least three of the CLSG members hold important positions in terms of inter-agency (or inter-xitong) policy implementation. The designated vice-chair is Wang Huning (王沪宁), who serves as the senior member of the CCP Central Secretariat (共产党中央书记处, Gongchandang Zhongyang Shujichu), which communicates senior-level policy directives from the Politburo to subordinate CCP departments (Propaganda, Organization, United Front Work, et al). Ding Xueliang (丁薛祥), as Director of the CCP Central Office, is responsible for managing the key administrative hub servicing the CCP Central Committee. Finally, Xiao Jie (肖捷), as Secretary-General of the State Council, bears responsibility for overseeing policy coordination amongst the various state bureaucracies.
The second is the prominence given to senior officials in the party propaganda apparatus. In addition to his role in the CCP Secretariat, Wang Huning holds the PBSC policy portfolio for ideology and propaganda. A former academic, Wang has been a senior behind-the-scenes figure in developing the party’s official ideological formulations over the past two decades. Another member of the CLSG, Politburo member Huang Kunming (黄坤明), has served successively as the Deputy Director (2013-2017) and then Director (2017-present) of the CCP Central Propaganda Department. The appointment of these two men to the CLSG suggests a high level of concern on the part of the party leadership regarding the information and narratives presented to the public about the government’s handling of the crisis.
The third point is the absence of any military representative on the LSG—despite the prominent crisis response role assigned to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in statements by Xi and other senior leaders, and the largest mobilization of PLA medical resources since the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (China Military Online, January 27; China Daily, January 30).  This makes the lack of any PLA representation a notable omission. However, channels for senior-level leadership communication exist via other institutions (e.g., the CCP Central Military Commission, and the PLA Central Theater Command), and in terms of day-to-day coordination these channels are likely of greater practical value than a seat on the CLSG.
The first of these three points suggests a substantive role for the CLSG in managing the government’s response; but the second and third points suggest otherwise, pointing towards a primary public relations role for the CLSG. Other central leadership actions in late January and early February provide further indications in regards to this question.
CLSG Activities in Late January and Early February
The inaugural meeting of the CLSG was followed by further publicity given to inspection tours on the part of CLSG members, who traveled to hospitals and other relevant work sites to signal the leadership’s attention to the spreading viral epidemic. Immediately after the first CLSG meeting, Li Keqiang conducted a trip to Wuhan on January 26-27 to “inspect and give guidance” to local officials, medical personnel, and workers at the site of a new hospital under construction (see accompanying images).
An even more active travel and publicity schedule has been maintained by Sun Chunlan (孙春兰), a PRC Vice-Premier and the sole woman in the Politburo. Sun holds the State Council policy portfolio for public health; this, as well as her long experience in the CCP United Front Work Department (which seeks to mobilize social groups outside the CCP in pursuit of party goals), makes her a natural choice to act as a point person for the leadership response to the 2019-nCov crisis. Sun has been the most prominent CLSG figure in conducting on-the-ground visits to the epicenter of the epidemic, making five separate trips to Wuhan since late January: on January 22, 27, and 30; and February 3 and 8-9.Her activities on these trips included visits to local hospitals, the Hubei Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and inspection check points at the Wuhan International Airport. On at least the two most recent of these five trips, Sun was designated as the leader of a “central [authorities] guidance group” (中央指导组, zhongyang zhidao zu) charged with communicating CCP leadership directives to local officials and workers (Xinhua, January 23, January 29, January 31, February 3, February 8, February 10).
A Less Public Posture by Xi Jinping
Throughout late January and early February, PRC state press has pulled back somewhat from its usual slavish dedication to Xi Jinping’s cult of personality, while giving more coverage to other senior CCP officials and their roles in responding to the epidemic. Coverage of the CLSG has taken pains to emphasize that its members are acting at the direction of Xi Jinping (Xinhua, January 26), and state media has described Xi as “commanding China’s fight” against the epidemic (Xinhua, February 2). However, Xi himself has displayed a lower public profile, and the usually peripatetic CCP Chairman has not traveled to the outbreak epicenter in Hubei Province. Xi’s only notable public appearances since January 21 have both been in Beijing: meeting with World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on January 28 (Xinhua, January 28), and with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on February 5 (CCTV, February 5). On February 10, Xi made his first round of grassroots appearances by visiting a residential community and disease control center in the capital’s Chaoyang District, as well as Beijing Ditan Hospital, where he “checked the treatment of hospitalized patients at the monitoring center and talked to medical staff on duty via a video link” (Xinhua, February 11).
The reasons for Xi’s more reserved posture are not entirely clear, but there are a few plausible explanations:
- Xi is now firmly established as the indispensible “core” (核心, hexin) leader of the party, with power centralized in his hands. Although he has cultivated an image of being “close to the people,” Xi may be avoiding public appearances for the simple reason of sheltering himself from potential exposure to the virus.
- The situation surrounding the epidemic is rapidly unfolding and unpredictable, and therefore subject to surprise developments. Xi’s public image has been carefully stage-managed, and he and his media handlers may wish to avoid any situations that present the prospect for surprises that might tarnish his image.
- Xi Jinping may be reluctant to have too close an “on-the-ground” identification with relief efforts, lest he become subject to public anger for an inadequate response to the crisis. Further, Li Keqiang and Sun Chunlan owe their positions not to close ties with Xi, but rather to patronage ties with former CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao (Nikkei, March 2019). From Xi’s perspective, Li and Sun would therefore be expendable figures in the event that public anger shifted from local officials to the central leadership.
Any one of these explanations, or some combination of all of them, could be true. However, this is speculative, and the precise reasons for Xi’s recent lower public profile are unknown.
Multiple indications exist that the CCP central leadership has been caught off-guard by the virus epidemic, and that it has been far more rattled than its confident pronouncements would seem to admit:
- The downplaying of the epidemic’s seriousness in the first three weeks of January (up to around January 20) suggests either a reluctance by top leaders to accept the seriousness of the situation, or bureaucratic paralysis regarding the policy and public relations responses.
- Xi’s relative absence from public view (since January 21) suggests central leadership uncertainty regarding the best posture for Xi to adopt in terms of his public image—and possibly, a willingness on the part of Xi to allow other (potentially expendable) political figures to act as the public face of the state’s relief efforts.
- The previous factor reflects a reflexive tendency—deeply ingrained in elite CCP leadership echelons—to “hunker down” when faced with an unpredicted crisis that does not have a pre-determined response, and which could cause a loss of face for the leadership (e.g., the 1999 Belgrade embassy bombing, the 2001 EP-3 crash on Hainan Island, and SARS in 2002-2003).
- Commentary about the epidemic from state media and senior leaders has largely consisted of time-worn platitudes about service to the people, exhortations for workers to make ever-greater exertions, and the need to adhere loyally to “guidance” and “direction” from the CCP central leadership. The propaganda system has operated largely on auto-pilot, suggesting the lack of a clear behind-the-scenes consensus for substantive messages from the central leadership.
The formation of an ad hoc policy LSG for the 2019-nCov epidemic is intended to signal serious central government focus on the crisis, while simultaneously reinforcing the leadership role of the CCP. In this sense, the new LSG is likely intended to serve a primary public relations role—and it is uncertain to what extent it will actually play a meaningful role in coordinating information and policy decisions across state ministries and party bureaucratic channels. One plausible possibility is that Xi Jinping has decided, at least in regards to the virus outbreak, to let others act as the public face of the CCP—while he continues to monitor the situation and issue decisions from behind the scenes. Whether the functions of the new CLSG will adhere more to style or substance remains to be seen.
John Dotson is the editor of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, feel free to reach out to him at: [email protected].
 For discussion on the role of CCP leading small groups, see: John Dotson, “The Chinese Communist Party and Its Emerging Next-Generation Leaders,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, March 23, 2012 (pp. 15-16), https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/Research/USCC_Staff_Report_Rising_Leadersinthe_CCP_(March%202012).pdf; and Cary Huang, “How Leading Small Groups Help Xi Jinping and Other Party Leaders Exert Power,” South China Morning Post, Jan. 20, 2014, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1409118/how-leading-small-groups-help-xi-jinping-and-other-party-leaders-exert.
 Xi Jinping personally holds the chair of at least 11 of the CCP’s 20 major policy LSGs. See: Nis Grünberg, “The CCP’s Nerve Center,” Mercator Institute for China Studies, Oct. 30, 2019, https://www.merics.org/en/china-mapping/the-ccps-nerve-center.
 Examples of this include the Central Commission on Foreign Affairs Work (中央外事工作委员会, Zhongyang Waishi Gongzuo Weiyuanhui), the Central Commission on Finance and the Economy (中央财经委员会, Zhongyang Caijing Weiyuanhui), and the Central Commission on National Security (中央国家安全委员会, Zhongyang Guojia Anquan Weiyuanhui).
 The list of committee members, and summary information on their current positions, obtained from: “Li Keqiang Convenes and Directs a Meeting of the Central Leading Small Group for Work to Counter the New Coronavirus Infection Pneumonia Epidemic” [李克强主持召开中央应对新型冠状病毒感染肺炎疫情工作领导小组会议], Xinhua (Jan. 26, 2020), https://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2020-01/26/c_1125504004.htm; and individual profiles on the website China Vitae, https://www.chinavitae.com/index.php.
 The Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan—whose breakneck construction was a centerpiece of state propaganda in late January—was turned over to the PLA to commence operations on February 3, to be staffed from a reported contingent of 1,400 PLA medical personnel dispatched to Wuhan. The PLA has also organized ground and aviation logistical support for the response effort: on February 2, state media reported the arrival in Wuhan of eight PLA Air Force heavy transport aircraft carrying 795 PLA medical personnel and 58 metric tons of equipment and materials (China Daily, February 3) (China Daily, February 3).