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Public Anger Over Coronavirus Is Mounting. Will It Matter?

A ChinaFile Conversation

The coronavirus outbreak that exploded three weeks ago in the central Chinese city of Wuhan has prompted the most severe government actions in three decades. Cities are closed down, transport links broken, and tens of millions of people effectively quarantined. The death of whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang, one of several healthcare workers who attempted to draw attention to the virus at the start of the year, has prompted online rage, while economic growth forecasts have been slashed. At a time when the Party and the leadership claim supremacy over every aspect of Chinese life, when Xi Jinping has been styled “Chairman of Everything” can they avoid blame for the regime’s failure to contain the virus? And how much will it matter to Xi’s future? —The Editors

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The outbreak of coronavirus has infected tens of thousands of people, and left hundreds of millions of others throughout China fearing for their lives, as doctors, nurses, and ordinary citizens make heroic efforts to fight the disease. Much of this suffering might have been prevented altogether if government officials in Wuhan and Beijing had acted quickly instead of hiding the scope of the problem.

Yet despite public anger over the government’s response to the outbreak, the coronavirus crisis is unlikely to force the Chinese Communist Party rethink its style of governance. Instead, Xi and the party have doubled down on two strategies that have helped the CCP stay in power for decades: deflecting blame to local officials and addressing a crisis with a massive mobilization of government resources.

To be clear, the outbreak has laid bare some of the most dysfunctional parts of the Communist Party’s political system, in ways that most people rarely glimpse. On issues ranging from food safety to official corruption, the party’s system of political promotion encourages ambitious local officials to hide bad news in order to get ahead. The human cost of this can sometimes be hidden. Not so with the coronavirus.

Today, the most vivid symbol of the shortcomings of the CCP’s system of information control is a doctor named Li Wenliang. When Li attempted to alert other doctors in Wuhan to the spread of coronavirus, he was summoned by the police and made to sign a statement admitting to spreading illegal rumors. Li was eventually exonerated, but, tragically, he had contracted the virus himself, and he eventually died.

In response to the unfolding public health crisis, Beijing has fallen back on old habits. The central government has mobilized resources and people on a staggering scale in a way that has roots in Mao Zedong’s “mass line” method of governance. It has built an enormous hospital from scratch. It has quarantined entire cities. It has also called on citizens to monitor each other for signs of the disease. Whether or not these are ethical or effective measures, they may be effective political theater.

As the Chinese state has done for centuries, the government has also deflected blame to local officials. Beijing initially allowed domestic media outlets like Caixin to report on how inaction by the local officials in Wuhan allowed the virus to spread. For a time, it even permitted citizens on social media to level harsh criticism at local officials.

While the CCP’s handling of the outbreak may erode its popularity, any reckoning will not happen while the country is in the grip of a public health crisis. In the meantime, for friends, family, and students in China, I hope above all the doctors, nurses, and public health professionals working to slow the spread of the disease quickly succeed. 

Li Wenliang’s death plunged all of China into deep sorrow. A storm of outrage has gathered around the ruling regime for its mistreatment of Dr. Li and other people who dare to speak the truth and for its iron-fisted suppression of information for the sake of “stability,” which contributed to the global scale of this crisis in a major way. People are asking what we can learn from this tragedy, and what we should do so that Dr. Li will not have died in vain.

The first painful realization is that the self-acclaimed superior Chinese system has failed the public trust yet again, miserably. Government officials from the municipal to the highest levels were ignorant and arrogant, placing their self-interest and loyalty to their superiors above their responsibility to the people they ought to serve. The policy that stability and loyalty to the party and its leader outweighs everything corrupts China’s whole bureaucratic system.

The second lesson is that when truth is forbidden and lies flourish, citizens pay the ultimate price.  Chinese people have suffered repeatedly from incredible lies—falsified information on harvests led to tens of millions of deaths during the Great Leap Famine from 1959 to 1961. It is a cancer on Chinese society that lies are so readily acceptable. Moral degeneration permeates everything, from politics, the environment for workers, finance and business to academia, even in the hard sciences.  Presidents and deans of China’s most prestigious universities and medical schools published scores of high profile papers with fabricated data and went without reprimand of any kind, even after the misconduct was exposed and confirmed.

Perhaps the most important revelation is that freedom of expression is the first cornerstone of a modern society. Heirs to 2000 years of authoritarian rule, Chinese people have been told that individual rights, including freedom of expression are merely Western concepts espoused by a few heads-in-the-clouds elites and not suitable for China. Even though the Articles 35 and 41 of China’s Constitution read almost like the Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, violation of basic rights is a daily norm. People have been convinced or forced to trade rights for fast economic development, based under the rubric of what is called “performance legitimacy.” But now, the general public is suffering an agonizing tragedy because critical information was suppressed and because Li and his colleagues were silenced. People learn through blood and lost lives that freedom is never free, and that rights have to be fought for.

The outbreak will eventually be brought under control, although it is uncertain how many will lose their lives before it ends. The regime’s propaganda machine has been ruthless. It will continue to toot its horns and twist facts until it can claim that a great battle has been won by China’s authoritarian system and its supreme leader’s wisdom, further resounding proof of its justified legitimacy and superiority. It will mercilessly crush any dissent.

Today, citizens across China are taking to social media, posting the anthem from Les Miserables. “Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men?” the posts demand. For the sake of China and the Chinese people, I hope that everyone is really listening.

There are some basic guidelines that authorities should follow in cases of civil emergency: communicate quickly and frankly with the public, ensure you establish and maintain trust, and continue to keep the public informed. Following those rules allows a government to remain a trusted authority with which its citizens will be more inclined to cooperate.

The Chinese government at every level has broken all of these rules in the coronavirus emergency. It favored censorship over action in the critical first month, thus allowing the virus to take firm hold in Hubei, around the country, and now around the world. The subsequent draconian measures, while costly by every measure, are largely a high-profile exercise in shutting the stable door; the rhetoric of “People’s War” and a nation united in epic battle is ringing increasingly hollow, and the Communist Party is now cast as the villain in the tragic story of the heroic, and now martyred, Dr Li Wenliang.

Authoritarian governments can be widely tolerated by their citizens as long as the alternative seems worse and they deliver at least some of what they promise to a substantial proportion of the population. In the case of the CCP, those promises include security, stability and steadily rising prosperity. That compact is believable only as far as the administration is perceived to be both relatively honest and effective.

As things stand, both claims are in tatters and with them the credibility of the government at every level: the Wuhan government appears to have suppressed news of the spreading epidemic and evidence of human-to-human transmission in order to proceed with the provincial People’s Congress and an annual public New Year feast for 40,000 families. Online scandals include the diversion of scarce supplies of face masks and protective clothing away frontline medical staff to Party officials; the pop-up hospital, intended to showcase a marvelously efficient flagship response, has been described online as a prison and its triumphal opening was completely overshadowed by the death of Dr Li. His story will continue to be seen as the authentic narrative of this health emergency.

The epidemic is far from over and its secondary effects, including the economic and diplomatic impacts, will continue to develop. Having locked down substantial parts of the country, Beijing now faces the dilemma of deciding at what point to take the risk of declaring victory, and beginning to get the economy going again. In the short term, we can expect a ramping up of propaganda and an intense search for scapegoats of sufficient stature to appease the public’s rage. It will not be easy.

The month of March, in the stately calendar of China’s symbolic politics, should celebrate the ritual of the lianghui—the annual convening in Beijing of two key national political bodies. That seems unlikely as things stand, and even if it goes ahead, some hasty re-writing of the speeches will be required. Will anyone be prepared to listen?

Setting aside for a moment the human tragedy of the coronavirus, as well as the heroism of the front-line medical workers, the political and bureaucratic mishandling of this fast-moving crisis begs the question: how far can the Xi Jinping administration continue to stretch the system before it snaps?

Since early 2013, Xi has overseen a relentless campaign to remake China’s Party-state to better position it to face domestic and international challenges, as well as to eventually realize a vision of a rich, powerful, and rejuvenated Chinese nation. The hallmarks of this effort are so well known they have become clichés: the centralization of power, the marginalization of the State Council, the fear and uncertainty now rippling throughout the bureaucracy, the tendency of cadres towards inaction or second-guessing. We’ve seen specific instances of these pathologies across a wide swath of policy silos before, but not until the coronavirus had we seen the entire picture come into focus. Public health emergencies challenge all governments and strain the resources and capabilities of even the most advanced economies. Beijing’s top-down, opaque, and repressive system makes matters even more complicated, for individuals must layer political and ideological considerations on top of practical ones. 

This is a system-wide failure, and a thunderous repudiation of Xi’s system of governance. Ergo, goes the conventional wisdom, by making himself the “CEO of everything,” Xi will be stuck footing the bill. As a heuristic, this makes some sense, but I find this narrative unconvincing. US President Harry Truman’s quip that “the buck stops here” was not a universal dictum of leadership, but rather a rare instance of a leader accepting responsibility. The normal mode of behavior is to buck-pass, to blame lieutenants, to harangue lower-level officials, to request the resignation of cabinet members, to blame external factors, be they “hostile foreign forces” or a slowing global economy.  Xi has leaned on many of these before, and will like do so moving forward. 

But even if the finger is squarely pointed at Xi, so what? Some hint that he might be removed from power, either by force or suasion. Left out of such speculation, however, is just how this will occur. We know a mechanism exists – that the Central Committee could hold a plenary session and vote for a leadership change. We also know that leadership coups are not uncommon in authoritarian systems. Indeed, Xi himself has warned of “political plot activities” to “wreck and split the Party.” But the bar to unseating an entrenched leader – to say nothing of one as dug-in as Xi – is extraordinarily high, and the logistical difficulties of covertly building a consensus to topple Xi are immense. Not impossible, but overwhelming.

Xi still dominates the political system, recent failures notwithstanding. Barring an extraordinary deterioration of China’s economic or political stability, a “post-Xi” era is not imminent. He will very likely continue to dominate the country for some time. But what does it mean to dominate a Party and a government that appears unable to confront, diagnose, and effectively overcome complex domestic and international challenges? That’s not just a problem for China, but for the world.

The Chinese I meet are doubtless a biased sample, but they do include many ordinary students, some establishment intellectuals, and even some lower-level offiicials. And they are angry. They seem to be angrier than at the time of the Wenchuan earthquake, or the melamine milk scandal, or when Xi Jinping amended the constitution to abolish term limits.

What is different this time? They say the insulting information control, heavy-handed restriction of personal liberty, and disregard for people’s welfare is not just located in one province but spans all regions, does not affect only one group of citizens but everyone, and the blame for what is happening goes not to corrupt local officials or shady businessmen, but to the system itself and its highest leaders.

What I hear from my Chinese friends is much like what I read in the excellent reporting in The New York Times. Xi has pulled a previously lax administrative system together in such a way that it is now dysfunctionally hyper-responsive to central directives but paralyzed in their absence. Xi’s version of the Chinese party-state stands revealed as a Frankenstein’s monster that flails about in response to its master’s commands, wrecking everything that it hits.

Li Wenliang, one of the first physicians to notice the disease, privately warned some colleagues, was reprimanded by the police, and died of the disease. He was no dissident but an ordinary medical professional, just interested in protecting colleagues and family. If the police can issue a “warning” to him for “untruthful speech,” it can happen to anyone. No one feels safe—whether from the disease or from the police. One visiting academic who maintains a politically correct public stance in all political matters told me, “Our system is not authoritarian”— and I expected to hear the fairly common claim that it possesses robust elements of democratic consultation and responsiveness — but instead he continued, “it’s really totalitarian.”

Years of survey research have shown high levels of political support for the Chinese regime and other Asian authoritarian regimes, due partly to traditional attitudes of deference to authority and partly to these regimes’ ability to deliver political order and economic growth. But the Wuhan virus crisis reveals public support in China to be—although relatively high— more shallowly rooted than public support in most democracies. In democracies, citizens are critical even when the system performs well, but remain mostly committed to its survival even when it performs badly.

Chinese who were previously supportive of their government or at least tolerated it are now saying that the system cannot last. But when I ask them when and how it will change, they waffle: not right away; maybe soon; maybe in twenty years. The regime is too strong; there is no alternative leadership; change would mean chaos; hope must lie within the Party itself.

I share their confusion. The Chinese system is brittle but it is not at the breaking point. The public is disgusted but it is afraid of change. The political culture is growing more liberal as modernization rushes ahead, but habits of deference remain strong. This is not the last crisis. My guess is that the regime will be gone eventually—but not for a while yet. And like my Chinese friends, I am uneasy about what comes after.

The biggest consequence of the coronavirus for Xi Jinping, is something far more inchoate and difficult to assay than health effects, economic impact, or consequences for China’s global outreach efforts, namely, the “Mandate of Heaven.” This was the idea, first expressed three thousand years ago and which took mutable forms throughout Chinese history, that governance depended on the extension of cosmic favor on just and able rulers. In the Confucian scheme of things what was most critical for gaining and keeping this “heavenly mandate” was for a ruler to demonstrate virtue and moral propriety. By ruling justly and performing the proper ritual ceremonies, an imperial leader propitiated “heaven’s” demands thereby bringing heaven and earth into balance and society into a state of harmony.

However, if an emperor violated proper Confucian proscriptions for good governance and threw heaven and earth out of balance, the former was believed to signal its displeasure by means of cosmic disruptions such as earthquakes, floods, meteors, droughts and epidemics. And such omens were associated by historians with peasant rebellions and other kinds of righteous uprisings against a corrupt ruling order. In the eyes of China’s historians, once the mandate had been broken, the replacement of one ruling imperial family by another was inevitable. When the time had come, as the Book of Changes put it, for “dragons to take flight and a new son of heaven to appear,” a dynastic cycle completed itself.  Just as stability was viewed as a sign that the “mandate of heaven” held, the “chaos” that inevitably followed the collapse and end of a dynasty was viewed as further evidence of cosmic disfavor.

Such beliefs remain embedded in popular sentiment within China today, despite the body blow done to traditional Chinese culture by the Maoist revolution. And for many people part of that belief system may include, consciously or otherwise, a latter-day version of the mandate. The Tangshan earthquake in 1976 was said—largely in retrospect—to herald the end of the “Mao Dynasty,” while many thought the protest movement of 1989 signaled the end of Deng’s reign. (They were wrong.) Now, as social media becomes a bubbling lava pit of disparagement accusing the Chinese Communist Party’s of misrule, a feeling of loss of moral authority is gripping Chinese society that is hard to measure, but may prove even harder to counteract.

Dr. Li’s death comes as a brutal blow to Chinese citizens, particularly in Hubei, who have struggled through weeks of resource shortages, misinformation, and delayed policy choices. Even before, the public was already angry at the handling of Li and his fellow doctors who had attempted to warn others that the virus was being transmitted by human-to-human contact. Even for people acclimated to the silencing of journalists, civil society figures, and other publically vocal critics, arresting a doctor for trying to inform the public about an impending health crisis crossed a line.

What that means at the top is not clear. Analysts of the Chinese leadership have often focused on one key relationship: that of Chairman Xi Jinping to Premier Li Keqiang. Traditionally, the premier has handled certain technical aspects of governance, but Xi’s administration has seen Li relegated to taking on tasks that would be more politically risky for Xi. In 2015, for instance, Premier Li took the reins of public relations work in the aftermath of a stock market shock that impacted millions of trading accounts.

Amid the coronavirus crisis, Li was dispatched to Hubei to tour facilities, reassure local politicians and affirm that China would battle through the disease. Xi’s physically distancing himself from the crisis was intended make sure the policies at fault in the outbreak would be associated more with the Wuhan and Hubei governments than with his leadership. The more attention heaped upon the specific actions of local officials, the less attention to mistakes or neglect on the top leadership’s part. This is an old tactic, allowing for a small, localized stream of criticism to siphon off discontent before it overflows. 

Disciplinary measures are already being leveled at the local authorities, in a bid to draw a line of fault that shields the central leadership. Whether or not that line is acceptable to the general public remains to be seen. While ordinary Chinese citizens cast no ballots and cannot criticize officials above those lines, that bitterness can still find ways to express itself.

Xi Jinping has spoken (via Party theorists) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “Mandate of Heaven” as a convergence of Marxism and Confucianism. The role of government competence in the interaction is critical: Rain falls from heaven; floods are caused by human failure to dredge and embank the rivers. Xi’s claims have rested on the theory that CCP state competence (valorized by foreigners as “meritocracy”) protects the population from the worst effects of natural disasters, or mitigates the effects of inherited dangers from pollution, poverty, and ignorance far better than a democratic government could.

Secrecy is essential to this hypothesized competence. The existence of a contagious disease, the means of transmission, or the scope of infection all threaten claims of state efficacy. But if secrecy fails, it has a faithful sidekick in the ability to quarantine blame. Government in China was past master at this long before the People’s Republic came along. When disasters hit, the Mandate of Heaven can remain intact, so long as culpability or—worse—doubts about competence never reach high enough to discredit the ruler.

Epidemics are a special kind of disaster, in which secrecy itself is the vector of transmission. Nevertheless, as an authoritarian government Xi’s one-party state has few options apart from secrecy as a first line of defense. It is by now also the first line of public criticism. Opinion in China, to the extent it can be reliably known, took immediate offense that the spread of novel coronavirus to Japan and Thailand was known before the government would admit that it had spread to any Chinese city outside Wuhan. People tossed cats and dogs out of windows, improvised prisons for their neighbors, and speculated about foreign sabotage, while the real means of transmission went undisclosed. 

Many in the Chinese public have commented that the government seems to have learned nothing from its experiences with SARS, HIV/AIDS, H1N1, H7N9, and now coronavirus (with filoviruses waiting in the wings, as it were). But this is clearly not true. The government has raised its technology of blame-deflection to champion levels. After taking the brunt of public criticism for SARS (and in a quieter way, HIV/AIDS) in 2003, the government generated a cluster of public hygiene agencies and spokesmen. They silenced doctors, assured the public of safety, and showed up at disease venues in important-looking hazmat suits, knowing that if it all cratered, they would draw public wrath away from CCP leadership. As the governor of Hubei announced, “Stressing politics is always No. 1.” They have not, however, explained why, as of today, patients in China are more than twice as likely to die of the disease as those anywhere else.  

This is the first time that the global magnitude of a China-generated epidemic may test CCP blame-blunting against world opinion. But whatever the pressure, Xi may not be able to lower the secrecy shroud or gear down the culpability neutralization machine. Both are essential to his method of governance.