Coronavirus outbreak highlights cracks in Beijing’s control

Lenora Chu

A man in Wuhan, clutching a mask across his face, described his emotions from inside the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. He posted the video to YouTube.

China’s leadership has escaped to an island, he claimed, his face reddening with anger, while ordinary Chinese were left trapped. “We have no power,” he said, begging the public to spread the word. “I want to create some public pressure so the Chinese government doesn’t escape their responsibilities.”

In Shanghai, an infectious-disease doctor proclaimed he’d switch out his front-line doctors with Communist Party officials. “Didn’t they all pledge an oath when they joined the party?” he asked, his sarcasm apparent despite his level voice.

In a political and social environment that typically allows little room for criticism of Chinese leadership, cracks have begun to appear in Beijing’s control of its populace. The coronavirus outbreak, now logging over 10,000 cases, with more than 200 deaths and an infection spreading worldwide, raises fundamental questions about China’s style of government. 

Will “2019-nCoV” be the thing that most tests the limits of Beijing’s authoritarian, centralized style of governance? Would greater transparency in the early days of the virus, back when only a few dozen were sick in an interior Chinese city, have prevented a global spread? Is this the first big political test for Xi Jinping – China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong?

A “golden window,” gone

In Wuhan, a city of 11 million in Hubei province, the first patients showed symptoms of a mysterious new virus in early December, linked to a wholesale market selling seafood along with wild animals.

Thus began what Minxin Pei calls the critical period.

“Mid-December through mid-January,” says Dr. Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. “They lost the golden window – that’s roughly a month when they could have issued a general alert. At least, people would have been screened, they wouldn’t be going places.”

The first evidence the central government was aware of the situation came on Dec. 31, when Beijing dispatched a team of medical experts to Wuhan.  From there, the situation progressed rapidly. On the first day of 2020, authorities interrogated eight Wuhan doctors and accused them of “rumormongering” for simply posting about the virus. Another few weeks of inaction passed until Jan. 20, when the number of cases seemingly doubled overnight. Finally, the central government sprang to action.

The system’s opacity may have prevented a rapid early response, explains Professor Pei, an expert on Chinese governance. When Chinese government officials are confronted with a problem, “they usually perform what I call triage, dividing the issue into technical or political.” 

A technical problem they might handle on their own. “If it’s political,” Professor Pei says, “I would think first about how it will reflect upon me, then I just kick the ball upstairs. I just keep kicking it upstairs, and wait for decision-making.”

At the top of the stairs, of course, is Mr. Xi, who has further consolidated Beijing’s power. 

Therein lies the problem, says Professor Pei. “Decision-making is a lot slower when there’s excessive centralization.”

Missing headlines

Meanwhile, an analysis from the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong shows state-owned papers made little mention of the virus in the first 20 days of January. In the lead-up to the Chinese New Year – the largest annual migration of people in the world – the papers trumpeted reports of the party’s success in eradicating poverty, convening top leaders in a show of solidarity, and strengthening Mr. Xi’s connection with the people.

On Jan. 23, the world learned of Beijing’s order to quarantine Wuhan. But inside China, the papers were still relatively mum; only two days later did two reports appear on the right-hand side of the People’s Daily’s front page, hardly reflective of the panic developing on the ground at that point, with more than 2,000 sick in China and 40 infected overseas.

Today, with the cat out of the bag, anger is rampant.

“Everyone’s on WeChat, everyone’s on Weibo, and the amount of messages going back and forth is in the billions,” says Elanah Uretsky, an anthropologist of China at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. “It’s spreading panic, and it isn’t serving anyone well.”

Ultimately, in her estimation, Beijing simply wasn’t prepared to handle an outbreak of this size. Though decision-making has been centralized, the health care system is still largely local or provincial, Professor Uretsky says.

When the SARS epidemic emerged in November 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) wasn’t informed or fully involved for three months, until about 300 people had already died.

David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project, says there’s been no real transformation in the way China handles major crises since then – and he’s not surprised. 

“Real restraints on hard news and investigative reporting, when combined with [a] push for positivity, are a toxic combination,” Mr. Bandurski writes in an email. “They risk creating a society that has essentially no immune system.”

“War” mode

Yet the power of the Chinese state has now been brought to bear. The central government announced that new multistory hospitals would be built in a matter of days. More than a thousand doctors have been dispatched to Wuhan, according to Professor Pei, and the production of masks has certainly been cranked up. “This is what I call the militarization of government,” he says. “They treat such a task as war.” 

In a country of 1.4 billion people, the government has also managed to quarantine entire cities totaling around 50 million people – with no rioting.

“With SARS, the same thing happened,” says Brandeis’ Professor Uretsky. “As soon as they’ve acknowledged the problem, they’re solving the problem, despite all the justified criticisms of that style of governance.” Wuhan also has a BSL-4 laboratory, the highest possible rating for handling dangerous agents. 

WHO has now declared coronavirus a public health emergency, the United States has given its diplomats in China a choice to leave, and many airlines are halting flights. On Thursday, the U.S. State Department warned Americans against traveling to China.

The Chinese economy is bound to take a hit, as will countries whose economies are closely intertwined with China’s. During SARS, China’s economy was just a whisper of the global behemoth it is now.

Which brings up the question: What does this all mean for Mr. Xi?

The Hong Kong protests don’t register for most mainland Chinese, meaning the coronavirus is really the first significant domestic challenge to Mr. Xi’s authority. Indeed, with all provinces showing disease outbreak, no one is untouched by the crisis.

For years, China watchers had posited any number of events as “the event” that might shift China’s political thinking, says Jeremy Wallace, a China expert at Cornell University – including SARS, the global financial crisis, and the Bo Xilai political scandal.

In communist regimes, “turning points are few,” argues Professor Pei. “But – this could be part of a constant erosion.”

Back in Wuhan, the young man in the mask concludes his 10-minute video imploring the world to care about ordinary people like him. He asks for “international pressure and awareness.”

“We have high housing costs, living costs, inflation,” he says. “We, too, want to live with democracy and freedom ... but we can’t. We are helpless.”

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