Cary Huang
SCMP Columnist
Sino File
by Cary Huang
Sino File
by Cary Huang

The coronavirus threatens the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power

Authoritarianism has made this outbreak worse, not better. The state’s strength in controlling information and suppressing dissent is a weakness in fighting disease

Nature is unpredictable and sometimes vengeful. Different societies and political systems have different ways of managing it.

Viruses and epidemics can occur in any country. But they have become more dangerous and challenging in modern times as globalisation means they spread faster and farther than ever.

Thus the coronavirus, thought to have originated in the mainland Chinese city of Wuhan, is spreading across the world.

As it does so, it tests not only China’s health infrastructure and management. The course of the epidemic and the government’s responses raise profound questions about the capacity and dynamism of China’s system of one-party rule.

For sure, China’s leadership is now doing everything to contain the virus, just as they had done in fights against natural disasters such as the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008. In fact, China’s command-and-control systems might prove more efficient than anything the free democracies could manage when it comes to mobilising resources.

Beijing won international plaudits for the massive scale of its mobilisation and dramatic measures against the coronavirus. The government has built several temporary hospitals from scratch in just a few weeks, locked down tens of millions of people in quarantine in more than two dozen cities, banned tens of millions more from travelling across the nation and so on.

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But the saga has also, once again, exposed the inherent contradictions and flaws in its self-acclaimed political system.

China missed the best opportunity to contain the spread of the virus because officials at first delayed – or possibly covered up – the release of information and were slow in taking precautionary actions. The first patient who experienced symptoms was found on December 1, 2019, suggesting the origin of the disease was even earlier. And there has been some evidence of human-to-human transmissions since late December, with more emerging in early January when several medical workers were infected.

These vital bits of information were not released to the public in time. Nor was any decisive action taken between early December and January 23, the day Beijing told the world about the severity of the epidemic and declared war on it just two days before the Lunar New Year on January 25. Lives continued as normal in Wuhan in the week before then. On January 18, the Wuhan government hosted a banquet attended by more than 40,000 families in a bid to set a Guinness world record. On January 20, the municipal government said it was distributing 200,000 free tickets to residents for festive new year activities.

Videos show few people wearing face masks in Wuhan before mid-January. Compare that to Hong Kong, where since early January the government has been updating people on the situation daily and holding frequent news briefings.

In terms of human-to-human transmissions, the alarm wasn’t raised until the prominent epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan spoke out on January 20 – nearly 50 days after the first patient was found and three weeks after it was established that human-to-human infections were taking place.

Instead of acting against the virus, the government focused on controlling the information. In an effort to underscore the Communist Party’s determination to crack down on unsanctioned information, the broadcaster CCTV reported on January 2 that Wuhan police had interrogated and warned eight whistle-blowers, frontline doctors, for “rumourmongering” about the epidemic. It seemed all too familiar to 2003, when military doctor Jiang Yanyong defied government rules and risked his own life to break the news about the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) to the international media.

China’s censorship of news has made the country fertile ground for rumours, as people do not trust official information. Indeed, there are numerous cases in which officials have downplayed or covered up large-scale disasters, from Sars to the contamination of the Songhua River in 2005, the milk powder scandal of 2008 and the Wenzhou train crash of 2011.

The official rhetoric before Zhong’s revelation was, at least, consistent: the disease was controllable and preventable; there was no evidence that the virus could be transmitted between human beings. There is no doubt that the delay in the release of information led to a delay in precautionary actions, both by the public and the government. Both the government and the public are obviously unprepared for the outbreak, as evidenced by the mess in hospitals and major shortages of testing kits, masks, protective gear and other materials.

Yet the fight against this epidemic is like a race between the virus and human beings. The faster will be the winner, the slower the loser. Party officials usually put social control ahead of fighting natural disasters, often playing down the severity of instances. In a leaked internal circular, the public health ministry says there are three principles in dealing with epidemics. They are, in order: “politics, safety and science”.

Under the party’s draconian censorship system, any information about epidemics is a top state secret. So much was admitted by Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang. He told CCTV he had delayed the disclosure of information as internal rules barred him from doing so without permission.

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Until now, any unsanctioned information about the epidemic or negative opinion about the government’s handling of it on social media will have been deleted by party censors. Posters of such material face severe punishment, even jail.

The irony is that the party’s strength in controlling information and suppressing dissent is also its weakness in fighting epidemics. This contradiction has become more acute in the 17 years since Sars, as the country has become more authoritarian after President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

The coronavirus is a vivid and tragic example of how China’s one-party rule not only impedes the public’s response to epidemics, but also helps turn problems from localised health scares into catastrophes on a nationwide and even worldwide scale.

Nobel economist Amartya Kumar Sen once concluded that the free flow of information and transparency were the best weapons in the battle against the spread of epidemics. China lacks both. China’s leadership should have learned lessons from Sars. Beijing’s sweeping anti-contagion measures have come too late. Early on, its political institutions allowed the virus to fester freely, repeating the tragedy of Sars. That means what we are witnessing is not simply a public health problem. It is one of the most severe sociopolitical crises the party has faced and it threatens to undermine its absolute grip on power.

Mother nature has not been merciful to humans during this crisis. And China’s authoritarianism is making it only more vulnerable to nature’s wrath.

Cary Huang is a veteran China affairs columnist, having written on the topic since the early 1990s