In an interview given to local media in early January, Li Wenliang, a young doctor from Wuhan responded to a question by saying ‘a healthy society should not have only one kind of voice’. Dr Wenliang was one of eight medical professionals who were investigated by the local authorities for spreading rumours, after raising concerns about the coronavirus in late December. After being released, Li Wenliang contracted the virus and died two weeks later.
The investigation into these doctors has sparked popular discontent and, following his death, Wenliang’s words have come to embody an underlying dissatisfaction with the foundations of China’s social system. Public health emergencies pose a serious challenge for any government but the initial cover-up in China, which contributed to the virus spreading to all provinces of the country, as well as the ambiguity around the official figures, has incited anger which could pose a serious problem for the ruling Communist Party as the coronavirus becomes not just tangibly but politically infectious.
A crisis of this nature serves to expose both the strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese political system. The top down authoritarian approach has enabled the ruling party to rapidly release 1 billion yuan ($142 million) to combat the epidemic and produce astonishing feats of engineering, including the construction of a 1,000-bed hospital in 10 days. However, while the ability of the Chinese state to mobilise resources and quarantine entire cities speaks to the power of a centralised regime, it has become clear that the engrained weaknesses within the political system and the authoritarian structures have equally served to exacerbate the spread of the virus.
In a nation of 1.4 billion people, it is often hard to gauge public opinion, but it is clear that anxiety and fear is rising – stemming from a lack of trust in the government and the information that is emerging. James Kynge, global China editor at the Financial Times, labelled the outbreak Xi Jinping’s ‘biggest crisis since he took power in 2012’. The popular unrest that persisted in Hong Kong was a major issue, as was the trade war with the USA, but, in both instances, Kynge said: ‘China had the ability to deflect blame towards outsiders – in this case, there really is nobody else to blame.’
President Xi has sought to demonstrate that the central government is taking decisive action by removing local officials. On Thursday, the Communist Party’s secretary in Hubei, Jiang Chaoliang, was replaced by the Shanghai party chief, Ying Yong, who has links with President Xi and a background in public security, law and the feared anti-corruption commission. The decision to install trusted party officials is not only an attempt to appease domestic fears and anxiety but also a geopolitical strategy, one designed to present an image of authority and power for an international audience firmly focussed on China.
The reshuffle was accompanied by the announcement of a tenfold increase in new coronavirus infections as authorities changed the definitions to include patients diagnosed through clinical methods. By releasing these revised figures and replacing local officials almost simultaneously, it is clear the central government have sought to scapegoat local authorities for both underreporting cases as well as inadequately handling the crisis. Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University, told the Foreign Policy website that these ‘disciplinary measures being levelled at the local authorities are a bid to draw the line of fault that shields the central leadership. Whether or not that line is acceptable to the general public remains to be seen’. On Chinese social media platforms, this line is being highlighted further, as comments directed towards local authorities have been left uncensored while criticism towards the central government is conspicuous in its absence.
This is a high-risk strategy. If the virus is contained and numbers begin to fall, the central government can take credit. However, if reported cases continue to escalate and numbers are once again discovered to have been dramatically underreported, the central government will be at the forefront of any blame. There are still concerns surrounding the veracity of the official figures. A report by Professor Ferguson, a professor of epidemiology at Imperial College London, recently stated that official figures could still only capture as few as 1 in 19 infections.
The Communist Party have also got to manage the economic impacts of the virus, which are far from insignificant. Some analysts have drawn comparisons to the effects of the Sars virus, which was reported to have cost in the region of $50 billion. However, at that time China was still emerging into the global economy – the situation is very different in 2020. China accounts for 12 per cent of global trade and is responsible for nearly one third of international economic growth – more than US, Europe and Japan combined and, at $14 trillion, the economy is 10 times larger than it was in 2003. China has thus become a key economic fulcrum for global markets and any impacts on the Chinese economy are likely to ripple out across the world.
While fears that the coronavirus could tip the world into a global recession are premature, concerns over disruption to supply chains, which threaten the stability of fragile trade agreements such as that struck between China and the USA last month, coupled with pressures on key global components, including the oil sector, will only increase international scrutiny on the Chinese administration. The International Energy Agency cut annual growth forecasts for the oil markets by more than 30 per cent after Chinese oil demand dropped 20 per cent in January which, according to Bloomberg, could potentially represent ‘the largest demand shock the oil market has suffered since the global financial crisis of 2008 to 2009’.
It is too early to ascertain how domestic and international pressures will affect the Chinese government and it is premature to speculate on the legitimacy and future of the administration, given the control President Xi has over the Chinese Communist Party, its propaganda organs and the military. Yet, there can be no doubt that the promises of security, stability and rising prosperity are all under threat. As Richard McGregor, former Beijing bureau chief at the FT notes: 'For a man whose propaganda apparatus has recently begun to promote him as the “people’s leader”, it has been a humbling moment [for President Xi].’
The pressure on President’s Xi’s government is becoming ever more intense, however one aspect that remains unknown is how long this crisis will persist. If the crisis can be contained and brought under control in a matter of weeks, then the fallout can be managed in ways that avoid significant reputational damage for the ruling party. However, if the crisis was to persist for months with implications for national health, the global economy as well as international political tensions, the situation for President Xi could become increasingly challenging.
The recent restructuring of local administrators is certainly emblematic of an attempt from the central government to appease public disquiet and deflect blame by scapegoating local authorities. However, there is a sense that these measures are simply an eye-catching act to belatedly shut the stable door. The question of how far the horse has bolted will perhaps determine the political and economic impacts that could afflict the Chinese government. If the virus continues unabated, the words of the late Dr Li Wenliang – that society needs more than one voice – could soon become the rallying message around which change is demanded.
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