Beijing’s focus on maintaining social stability may see it overemphasise censorship and miss an opportunity to bring the coronavirus outbreak under control.
– The latest research shows new pathways of transmission and risks to public health as China’s population returns home after Lunar New Year celebrations
– Despite the role information suppression played in exacerbating the present crisis, Beijing appears ready to continue the policies whatever the cost
– The Communist Party’s interest in opinion guidance rather than crisis management suggests the outbreak is unlikely to end for some months
NOTHING TO BEEN SEEN, OR HEARD, OR ELSE
Mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak by Chinese officials coupled with fears that the return to business as usual may hasten the spread of the virus has provoked an outcry on Chinese social media. The death-in-care of Dr Li Wenliang, who attempted to raise awareness the then-unknown pneumonia, has highlighted how overwhelmed China’s healthcare system has become. Videos showing the factors contributing to his tragic death — now censored on Chinese social media — reveal the desperation of hospital staff as shortages of crucial medical supplies and even doctors impedes the treatment of infected citizens. With the maintenance of “social stability” the government’s top priority, efforts to downplay the casualty rate and paper over Dr Li’s death have prompted a rare demonstration of public anguish and resentment online.
Despite these criticisms, Beijing appears more interested in gaming its way back to normalcy. The Communist Party’s goal of doubling 2010’s GDP by the end of 2020 sets hard economic growth targets that must be met despite the quarantining of 50 million people. Though there are risks involved in returning millions to work, these haven’t appeared to merit much attention beyond vague instructions to local officials to “contain the virus”. The State Supervisory Committee has sent an investigation team to Wuhan to investigate Dr Li Wenliang’s story, but the eventual goal is likely to the apportioning of blame to provincial and municipal officials. The underlying goal of the Party’s actions appears to be regaining control of the social and political narrative surrounding the outbreak; the national Internet watchdog’s ‘targeted supervision’ policy has resulted in numerous arrests of citizen journalists who were critical to raising public awareness. While this policy of information suppression and political manoeuvering appears to constitute Beijing’s approved line, without addressing the systemic failings that precipitated the crisis, there remains a high chance of a worsening health crisis emerging in the near term.
Taking Li's death as a tool to stir up anti-govt sentiment on Chinese social media is part of overseas separatists' customary tactics, as they used in #HK protest. Such move is obnoxious and childish, said experts. https://t.co/n5XA3KuLH9 pic.twitter.com/X4c7SEhce4
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) February 8, 2020
CULTURE OF SECRECY
The exact source of the outbreak has yet to be determined. Health experts initially pointed to the unregulated sale of wild meats at a wet market in Wuhan, but new research suggests the virus may have begun elsewhere before it made its way to the market and flourished. As of February 4, Shenzhen’s Third People’s Hospital’s liver disease research institute and several laboratories in Wuhan had found 2019-nCoV nucleic acid in stool samples, a possible indication of the virus’s origins. Moreover, the findings present information about possible faecal–oral transmission at a time when the main recommendations to avoid infection have focused on facemasks.
Mismanagement of the official response by Party officials appears to be a key factor exacerbating the crisis. Driven by overarching concerns about effectively maintaining normal economic and social order, Party officials in Hubei initially sought to cover up emerging concerns of an outbreak. Warnings from registered doctors like Dr Li Wenliang were regarded as “illegal acts of fabricating and spreading rumours, and disrupting the social order”; dismissing the early warnings sowed the seeds of the crisis weeks before official containment measures were announced.
Subsequent justifications that the arrests of whistle-blowers were intended to bolster official sources of information do not appear to have been made in good faith. The information suppression campaign did not coincide with more proactive measures from officials. In the weeks after the first cases were recorded, Hubei’s provincial representatives hosted a banquet for 40,000 families, delayed orders to suspend travel out of Wuhan, and allowed some 100,000 citizens to leave before the quarantine orders were enforced, all while the virus spread. With similar strategies now being pursued by Beijing, the concern is that other whistle-blowers will merely disappear rather than help officials prevent an intensified crisis.
SWEPT BACK UNDER THE RUG
With these circumstances in mind, health experts’ findings about the potential new forms of the virus’s transmission pose particular risks especially given China’s generally poor standards of public sanitation, especially in rural areas. Combined with concerns regarding government endorsements of traditional remedies that show little to no evidence of effectiveness in treating the virus, the return of millions to public spaces will undoubtedly test public health and hygiene safety. If such an intensification of the crisis were to materialise, the coronavirus would indeed represent the most dangerous moment for the Party since 1989.
Yet Beijing does not appear to be taking heed of the risks involved, except for threats to the Party. Almost immediately after it took charge at a national level, Beijing signalled a lack of confidence in its ability to contain the outbreak quickly. The allocation of duties appears to have been designed to shield China’s president and Party General Secretary Xi Jinping; rather than continuing to fill his role as “Chairman of Everything”, Xi gave Premier Li Keqiang the leadership of the Coronavirus Leading Small Group. Since that decision, Xi has seldom appeared in the public eye. On January 28, he met the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), and on February 6 he met Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. On February 10, Xi was seen inspecting efforts to fight the outbreak in Beijing, but he has avoided journeying to the front lines in Wuhan.
Mostly these events have allowed Xi to navigate the crisis indirectly so as to avoid incurring too much direct criticism or opposition. The Party’s goal reinforces this effort; the Standing Committee of the Politburo is acting to “strengthen the management and control of online media” and focusing on public criticism rather than the threat to public health.
Control of online media — purportedly to counter sources of misinformation — expressed the need for censors to ‘guide’ public opinion, effectively sanctioning the persecution of those not adhering to the Party line. With citizen journalists facing arrest throughout Hubei, state broadcasters will soon be free to follow the Committee’s instructions and provide numerous tales of “touching stories of the frontline of epidemic prevention” and “the Chinese people’s spirit of unity and togetherness.”
Despite the online demands for transparency, the possibility that revealing the health situation on the ground could generate a wave of online criticism may appear to be too great a risk for the Party; transparency risks exposing previously unseen flaws in the Party’s structure and response. Instead, any lifting of the veil will merely serve political goals, such as scapegoating Party officials who fall short of accomplishing the vague containment instructions. Where Xi sees political capital in collecting scalps from those occupying key positions, possibly in line with his signature ‘anti-corruption’ push, he is almost certain to do so.
Yet even as those elements of the Party structure that gave rise to the current crisis go unaddressed, Beijing’s ongoing corralling of public scrutiny could exacerbate the crisis. Beyond immediate health concerns, coronavirus also poses serious threats to the social fabric of Chinese society. The longer the crisis persists, the more the memory and emotion of the Party’s failure will loom large over those aspirational promises so closely tied to Xi Jinping and the more likely the threads of Xi’s ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ narrative will start to come loose.
For now, with netizens calling for freedom of speech online, whether these increases in the policing of public speech will themselves be rolled back after victory over the virus may represent a far more consequential question than the virus itself.
Jonathan is the East and Southeast Asia team’s lead analyst for stories emanating from China and Southeast Asia.