If China’s government doesn’t want to imperil itself, it needs to send a clear signal to its citizens it is deploying every possible resource to keep them safe

Of all the misconceptions about China you are likely to encounter in 2020, the belief that it is orderly and easy to govern is among the most common.

As an authoritarian country with a communist present and past, it is often assumed that China’s political leaders control information and people with a ruthlessness and efficiency not possible in democracies. As a result, the country has developed at an incredible pace, and proven highly adaptable to the challenges imposed by that development. 

One wonders, then, why the coronavirus outbreak would cause such uproar both within China and abroad.

In reality, the epidemic is just one of the innumerable challenges and critical tests facing China’s leaders, who harbour no illusions of their vulnerability to a drop in public opinion, or of the inherent precariousness of governing 1.3 billion people. The coronavirus outbreak must be handled with the utmost care—the wellbeing of citizens, and by extension Communist Party support, depends upon it.  

Make no mistake, China’s central state is extremely strong and capable. It has also increased in power relative to society since Xi Jinping assumed leadership in 2012. But it is not accurate to claim that Chinese citizens are compliant or inactive, or that their government does not care what they think of it. Never is this more true than when public health and safety are at risk, as they have been in recent weeks. Quite apart from whether or not government actions curb the spread of coronavirus, China’s ruler—and Xi in particular—must consider public perception and political implications of their decision-making. It is also extremely important that China’s leaders avoid appearing anything less than transparent.

Their rush to appear “in control” arises from the harsh lessons of past health crises in China and their mismanagement. For example, a poorly orchestrated blood and plasma collections drive resulted in hundreds of residents of Shangcai county, Henan, contracting HIV in the 1990s. Shangcai County was later dubbed China’s “AIDS county”, but no public inquiries were ever held, nor any officials held accountable. The upshot, however, was a surge in activism around the rights of China’s HIV-positive, and a recognition by the central government that citizens expected them to handle epidemics swiftly and forthrightly. This challenge was met with the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 (for which then-Health Minister Wu Yi was lauded as the “Goddess of Transparency”), and swine flu in 2009.

The record on 2020’s coronavirus is yet to be settled. In some ways, the state has acted quickly to localise the disease. Thirteen urban centres of Hubei province including Wuhan, the apparent epicentre and home to 11 million people, went into lockdown. Reports also surfaced of Huoshenshan hospital’s opening in Wuhan, constructed in just 10 days. A second, Leishenshan, is soon to open, having been built within a similar time frame to take pressure of at least three makeshift field hospitals created in even less time. On the other hand, there is some evidence that early warnings about the virus were muted, presumably to minimise panic. Probably the most telling data point here is the uproar over Li Wenliang, the doctor who warned of the impending health crisis and was silenced by police, before he himself succumbed to the disease.

A separate but related concern is that China has accepted minimal help from a global community of scientists and health experts, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organisation. These entities have been effectively sidelined by a lack of willingness to share crucial data. Whether this is happening because that data is damning, or to avoid the appearance that China’s government needs outside help, is unclear. However, it is important to remember that reliance on scientific data in times of crisis is a relatively new thing in China. It was only in 2002, with the introduction of the “Scientific Outlook on Development” that responses shifted focus to evidence-based policy solutions, rather than ideology.

Before then, and especially between 1949 and 1978, epidemics were treated as moral problems. AIDS, for example, was thought to be a symptom of sick” capitalist societies. Those affected by the disease, especially sex workers and drug users, suffered as a result of their own choices (the implication being that having “correct” values and upright morals were the key to prevention). However, after the fall of communist regimes abroad and the Shangcai debacle at home, it became clear that Chinas government could no longer portray disease outbreaks as a product of anti-socialist values, and that continuing with this line of argument posed a danger to the stability and rule of the party. A change was made to allow Chinese and international doctors and scientists to have a greater role in determining proper responses.

Xi Jinping is fond using the term “win-win” to describe China’s rise and approach to development cooperation. But it seems to me he is missing out on a clear “win-win” situation by not engaging more deeply and effectively with a global community of experts. Doing so would not only mollify panicking publics around the world worried about what coronavirus will mean on their own shores, but aid China’s government in its quest for popular support by sending a clear signal to Chinese citizens that their government is deploying every possible resource to keep them safe. The weaker that signal becomes, the more China’s rulers imperil themselves.

Dr Stephen Noakes is a senior lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. He specialises in contemporary Chinese politics and foreign policy.

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