The handling of the outbreak of the coronavirus in the central Chinese metropolis of Wuhan, and then its spread around the country and then the world, have been notable for many things.
China’s response, which was late, and then overwhelming, quarantining overnight cities of more than 10 million people and constructing field hospitals in barely a week, displayed both the strengths and weaknesses of the party-state.The reaction of the rest of the world has been instructive as well, wary at first, perhaps out of fear of offending Beijing, before moving into high gear, with some countries trying to seal their borders with China by banning flights and keeping Chinese nationals out.
But there has been another, less remarked upon, phenomenon – call it the “revolt of the professions” – which in the longer term may be the most significant outcome of the entire episode.
The ruling Communist Party, as it does with any potential alternative power centre in the country, has inserted itself deep inside the professional bodies governing the legal and medical professions.
Legal offices, courts and hospitals all have party committees, often headed by senior law partners and doctors, which give the Communist Party a presence inside institutions with a key role in public life.
Similarly, China does not have non-governmental organisations, or NGOs. Like other authoritarian countries, it has GONGOs, or government-organised non-governmental organisations, which are structured to ensure political compliance.
Over time in China, local professionals, both highly trained and knowledgeable, have strained to do their jobs. Chinese lawyers want to be lawyers. Scientists want to be true to their calling of science. Journalists want to be journalists, and so forth.
Yet in the last week, the professions have been pushing back against the party-state’s strictures, demanding their expertise be respected rather than brushed aside in the name of stability.
In the early stages of the coronavirus, police in Wuhan dispatched summons to eight people in the city and warned them about social media posts discussing the outbreak of viral pneumonia in the city.
“The police will investigate and punish anyone fabricating and spreading rumours and disrupting social order,” they said in a statement published in official media.
It turned out that the eight were doctors in Wuhan, one of whom had contracted the virus after treating a patient.
The doctors had been sharing details of their cases, as any medical professionals might, and in the process discussing among themselves on WeChat whether a broader alert should be issued. The Wuhan authorities, however, stepped in and warned them to keep quiet, or else.
“Politics first. Stability preservation first,” wrote Wuhan journalist, Da Shiji, about the episode. “In such an environment, science can only sit by and watch.”
In his lengthy account of how the authorities suppressed information about the virus, Da reports that the scientific and medical professionals, frustrated by the political controls, came up with a way to get around them.
To prod the authorities into action, Dr Zhong Nanshan, a prominent doctor from Guangdong, in southern China, was sent to Wuhan to report on the situation. As the doctor who had identified the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) virus in 2003, Zhong’s colleagues knew that whatever he said could not be ignored.
“Our best bet was to have Old Dr Zhong, this great god, come out and reveal something of the real facts of the situation, and try to calm people’s nerves,” said Meng Xin, a researcher at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
On cue, Dr Zhong jolted the government after returning from Wuhan with a statement that the virus was being transmitted between humans. Proving to be a clever politician as well, he reassured Hong Kong a few days later in an interview that China would not hold back information in the crisis.
Once the government began to open up about the virus, something they had to do because it could no longer be hidden, the experts who only a few days earlier had been warned to shut up began to find their voice.
The doctors, now vindicated, have been giving interviews, sometimes from a sick bed.
The Supreme People’s Court in Beijing, an institution firmly under the control of the party, has been quick to chastise Wuhan police, saying that even if the information in the doctors’ chat group was not accurate (at first, they thought they were seeing a reappearance of Sars), it should not have been suppressed.
“To punish any information not totally accurate is neither legally necessary nor technically possible,” the court’s official site said. It “undermines the credibility of the government and chips away at public support for the Communist Party”.
In response, the Wuhan police dropped their initial stern tone and sheepishly insisted the doctors had just been called in for a chat, and had neither been detained nor fined.
The party-state will not like it. But if they are to properly handle the next virus that spreads in China and threatens the economy, the party might have to step back and let the professionals take charge.
If that happened, that would be real reform, not the sort of incremental, anaemic stuff usually debated in policy circles but which does not touch on the fundamentals of the Chinese system.
Given the way that Xi has governed the country, it would amount to a mini-revolution.