Illustration: Craig Stephens
by Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei
by Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei

Coronavirus holds up a mirror to China’s problems, and the nation will be the better for it

  • Out of the ashes of infection and death come fresh calls for freedom of speech, real pressure to cut bureaucracy and formalism, a will to fix problems rather than scapegoat outsiders, and the precious discovery that China has friends in its hour of need

Here in China, it is hard to be optimistic. Hundreds of people are dying from a new and scary virus, schools are closed and workplaces are largely deserted. It is China’s worst crisis in decades. We pray for the resumption of “normal” life as soon as possible.

But the Book of Changes – China’s foundational text for both Confucianism and Taoism – reminds us that the most difficult circumstances also give rise to positive changes.

Positive trends are already under way. We must resist wishful thinking, but there are good reasons to think that long-wished-for changes can be consolidated after the crisis blows over. The most obvious trend is the demand for more freedom of speech.

The case of Dr Li Wenliang has generated widespread outrage on social media. In late December, Li alerted colleagues to the new virus, mainly doctors at high risk of infection, only to be warned by local authorities not to spread rumours. Later, he succumbed to the same virus and died.
Chinese dissidents have long called for more freedom of speech. Journalists and artists have felt frustrated by increasing constraints on their work. In academic disciplines such as political science, the space to publish academic works in Chinese has been shrinking. But the rest of society did not seem to notice increased censorship.
However, Li’s fate has galvanised public opinion in a new and forceful way. There will be strong and almost overwhelming social pressure for more freedom of speech in the future. The government needs to adapt: at the very least, it will think twice before censoring experts who disseminate their research and express worries to their colleagues.

Why should the government respond to such calls? The government itself can benefit from more freedom of speech. As it stands, political leaders are blamed for everything that goes wrong in China because only “officially” approved views are expressed. With more openness, the responsibility will be more diffuse and the government can help to fix things and deal with them efficiently before they explode.

How China’s ‘controlocracy’ lost control of the coronavirus

The second positive trend is forceful recognition of the need for less bureaucracy and formalism. In recent years, China’s public officials have become ultracautious, largely due to the anti-corruption campaign. The campaign has reduced corruption in government. But the means employed – harsh punishment for hundreds of thousands of officials – created an environment where public officials are afraid to act. It is safer to keep one’s head down than to risk getting it chopped off.
At the start of the outbreak, local authorities in Wuhan failed to disclose information in a timely manner, delaying measures that could have contained the epidemic. Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang blamed legal restrictions imposed by central authorities: “As a local government, we may disclose that information only after we are given permission to do so.”
The delay is likely to have cost hundreds of people their lives. If the corrupt official was the bane of the Chinese public before the anti-corruption campaign, today – as a direct response of the Wuhan crisis – it is the do-nothing official who blindly sticks to the rules and cares for nothing more than pleasing the higher-ups.
Clearly, there is a need to wind down the anti-corruption campaign, and to emphasise moral self-regulation rather than fear of punishment. The anti-corruption drive had, indeed, been winding down in the past year or so. But recent events have exposed the problem for all to see, speeding up the demand for change. Talented local officials should be encouraged to innovate and experiment rather than err on the side of ultraconservatism.
In Shanghai’s Fudan University, a banner calls for institutions to adhere to the political philosophy of President Xi Jinping. The university’s removal of references to “freedom of thought” from its official charter last December triggered a rare act of student defiance, while two other institutions have moved to strengthen their allegiance to Xi. Photo: AFP

In universities, there will be strong pressure to reduce bureaucracy and formalism. The obsession with lengthy meetings is a source of aggravation for many academics. There is a trade-off between meetings designed to ensure consensual decision-making and the need for efficiency, with a clear need to rebalance towards the latter.

Officially, the government calls for less bureaucracy and less formalism. But such words have had little effect till now. The joke is that documents calling for less formalism only serve to create more formalism. Things are finally changing. In universities, meetings are now online, there is less paperwork, and the meetings take less time.

We can hear calls of relief at our own universities, and we have good reason to think habits of efficiency will be maintained after the medical scare is over.

How coronavirus crisis has brewed a ‘revolt of the professionals’ in China

The most important positive change, perhaps, is increased recognition of the need to fix problems at home rather than scapegoat outsiders. Before the epidemic, it was easy to blame outsiders for China’s problems. The Trump administration’s hostility to China played into the hands of ultranationalists at home.
Notwithstanding the circulation of some conspiracy theories, it is obvious that the current crisis is largely home-made. Since the public health crisis, excessive nationalism has been curbed in China.

International support for China’s plight helps to cement ties with other countries. China is grateful to countries such as Thailand and Cambodia that have not closed their borders to Chinese visitors. Even less-than-friendly countries have been helping.

Japan sent deliveries of masks to China, accompanied by a moving poem that expresses the idea that China and Japan share the same “gentle breeze and bright moonlight”. Canada has won praise for sending medical equipment and not closing its doors to Chinese passport holders.
Of course, it is always possible that embattled leaders will launch a war to distract attention from problems at home. But they are no longer guaranteed the people’s support. More likely, leaders will recognise the need for more international cooperation to tackle global challenges such as climate change, the regulation of nuclear weapons, and, of course, global pandemics.

The coronavirus epidemic is a tragedy, not least for the lives lost. We – the people, the government, the whole world – should do our best to end the crisis as soon as possible. But with the bad has also come some good.

Daniel A. Bell is dean of the school of political science and public administration at Shandong University. Wang Pei is an assistant professor at Fudan University’s China Institute. They are co-authors of Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World

Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.