Inside China's coronavirus response
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Inside China's coronavirus response

If Beijing had been open about its own early failings, instead of triumphantly promoting its later achievements, China’s global image might have been enhanced by the crisis. Originally published in The Australian Financial Review.

The emergence of a new, deadly virus in Wuhan in late December 2019 triggered multiple, cascading crises in China, from a collapse in the economy in early 2020 to a wave of foreign criticism of Beijing's handling of the outbreak.

Equally important, but less examined, has been how the ruling Communist Party managed the emergency – both internally and, once infections began falling at home, overseas – to corral its critics and limit any backlash at home and abroad.

Democracies across the world have come under scrutiny over their capacity to enforce lockdowns, protect health systems and manage their economies through sharp downturns after the virus spread within their borders.

China, however, deserves special attention, and not just because the virus originated in Wuhan. Beijing is doubly important because it openly touts the superiority of its system, in contrast to the failures of prominent democracies, especially the United States.

To understand how China managed COVID-19, it is best to think in terms of a political campaign. The phrase "the permanent campaign" was coined in the early 1980s to describe how politics had been transformed in the US, from being run by old-style party bosses to more professional, data-driven contests that ran non-stop between elections.

The Communist Party of China (CCP) operates in a similar fashion, like a political party that does not distinguish between governing and campaigning. During the COVID-19 crisis, the system has reacted with the speed of a 24/7 election campaign, from playing down the virus, to controlling its spread, and then declaring victory.

China's failures in the early stages of the crisis, and in the overseas propaganda campaign it later mounted, were baked into the CCP system. So too was the extraordinary mobilisation of the country's resources to enforce lockdowns and stop the spread of the virus. Success and failure are two sides of the same CCP coin.

So far, Beijing's approach to COVID-19 is akin to someone who lends you a book and urges you to skip the horrifying opening chapters and flip straight to the end, where the hero – in this case, the party-state – prevails, shining a path for the rest of the world to follow.

The missteps, and indeed the suppression of vital information after the initial detection of the potentially deadly new coronavirus by doctors in Hubei province, has been well documented, mainly by the Chinese themselves.

In January, the Wuhan mayor admitted in an interview on state television that information had not been released in a "timely manner". His immediate superior, the city's party secretary, admitted in the same month that he was in a state of "guilt, remorse and self-reproach" for not acting earlier. Doctors in Wuhan who had treated the first patients tried to raise the alarm, but were ordered by police to keep quiet. A number later died.

The party-state soon managed to regain control of the narrative, at least at home. The media was reined in. Critical bloggers were silenced. Some critics disappeared into detention. Officials got back on message.

Leaving aside the issue of political and moral culpability, the early failures of public communication were in part political, and in part structural.

Local officials in Hubei, and its capital Wuhan, feared any announcement of the discovery of a deadly new virus could upend one of the most sensitive times on the political calendar – the Lunar New Year break and annual meetings of local legislatures – and attract the ire of Beijing.

In the aftermath of the outbreak, the localities were blamed for delays in reporting new cases of the novel coronavirus. The central government sacked two senior officials – the party secretaries of Hubei and Wuhan – over their roles in allowing the spread of COVID-19. Their dismissals may not have been fair – we cannot judge because there has been no open accounting of the crucial early period in Wuhan and how local officials interacted with Beijing. But it is evident from dispassionate assessment of the way the crisis unfolded that local officials do not bear the sole responsibility.

Certainly, the central government had many chances to keep abreast of events on the ground in Wuhan. An inspection team visited the city on December 31. In a conference call on January 14, national officials warned health experts in a closed-door meeting that the then epidemic was likely to become a "major public health event". Some analysts have suggested Wuhan officials "intercepted the upward flow of information", and direct reporting of new cases did not resume until January 24. Whatever the case, it is clear the central authorities had ample opportunity to find out what was happening and press for further details.

At least part of the information log jam in early January was the result of the embedded hierarchies within the bureaucracy. The country's peak professional body, the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC), ranks below the National Health Commission, whose leaders in turn fall under provincial party chiefs in the bureaucratic pecking order. The city and provincial leaders needed permission from the top of the party and central government in Beijing to make announcements of any gravity.

"The local authorities in particular [were] responsible until, of course, they couldn't hide it," says Dali Yang, of the University of Chicago. "Then we later had the municipal leadership [say] they had no authority from above to announce anything. What we have is a system of complexity where all the parties are shirking their responsibility, and in this case everybody is culpable."

Another possible reason for the delay in declaring emergency measures was Xi Jinping's diary. On January 17, President Xi went ahead with a visit to one of China's important neighbours, Myanmar. He did not return to China until the following day. From January 19 to 21, he was in Yunnan, the province adjoining Myanmar, still distant from the capital. The Wuhan lockdown was not declared until a day after his return, on January 23. Indeed, by the time Xi arrived back in town, the State Council (China's cabinet), convened by Premier Li Keqiang, had already begun urgently seeking expert medical counsel. Its recommendation for a lockdown may have been on Xi's desk when he returned to the capital.

Put another way, it was not just local officials who failed. The entire system, beset with fear, uncertainty, cover-ups, bad faith and indecision at multiple levels, misfired until the top tier finally realised the gravity of the situation. The result was that the virus spread beyond Wuhan, into the rest of the country, and then the world – further, and faster, than it ever should have.

Despite outlasting the Soviet communist party as a governing entity, the CCP still frets it will fall through the trapdoor of Chinese history, in which the glorious rise of dynasties has inevitably been followed by their corrosion and corruption, and then collapse. The CCP, in contrast to other fallen communist parties, has pledged to break out of the dynastic cycle by incessantly reinforcing a focus on political awareness and loyalty to Xi and the party.

The party's military-style mobilisation, then, was the kind of overwhelming response that characterises its governing style. To borrow a phrase from American football, the party's modus operandi is to "flood the zone" with manpower and resources, to galvanise the entire system for fear that it might lose control of events. The process was led from the top, although a closer examination shows Xi Jinping called on Li at key moments.

The period from January 20, when the system began preparing for all-out war on COVID-19, was notable for the record number of meetings of the party's peak body, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). One meeting was held on January 25, the first day of the Lunar New Year, which is akin to the Australian cabinet convening on Christmas Day.

The first highly publicised emergency meeting on January 20 set the tone when Xi (in absentia) called on all levels of party committees, governments and relevant organisations to take action to maintain stability and control the information flow. At the meeting, held under the State Council, Li activated public health protocols, shut down wet markets and required other provinces to send personnel and supplies to Hubei and Wuhan.

The mobilisation of the party culminated in what might be the largest-ever conference call in history, when on February 23, 170,000 party officials and military personnel convened to listen to Xi. Again, the message was squarely focused not only on fighting the virus, but on lauding and upholding the system.

To get a sense of how deeply the call penetrated the system, China's bureaucratic elite – the senior officials screened by the party centre before they get their jobs – only number about 3500 to 4000. Xi's call, in other words, was listened into by officials from all tiers of government, right down to the county level. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the People's Armed Police (PAP), its para-military arm, were also on the call.

The COVID-19 pandemic illuminated another aspect of China’s political system, demonstrating how the party and its leader command all levers of power at a time of crisis in a way that cannot be replicated in democratic systems. China's deep state plumbs depths that democracies can barely imagine.

Without the need for any messy, democratic debate about civil rights or so forth, the government was able, virtually overnight, to lock down more than 700 million people in residential detention. It was also able to seal provincial, city, county and village borders; shut factories while commandeering the entire output of some businesses to supply emergency medical equipment; mobilise military and para-military units; build pop-up hospitals; mandate testing of tens of millions of citizens; and track the movements of residents through mobile phone apps.

In this respect, the crisis has been a reminder of the party-state's overwhelming capacity. Outside of military conflict, no country of any size or weight on the world stage has the ability to marshal resources like China, nor enforce a crackdown of a similar severity and dimension. The mobilisation of the state, businesses and the people at such short notice was a potent reminder that the CCP has virtual war powers at its fingertips, even in the absence of conflict with a foreign power.

The CCP had the means and the accompanying surveillance to enforce the lockdown through a system that covers the entire country – from the provinces, cities and villages, down to individual streets and compounds. Staff at transport hubs and outside homes and residential compounds recorded and input people's personal information including names, national ID numbers, contact details and data about recent travel.

The so-called "Health Code", an app developed by the Chinese tech giant Alibaba, stores location data when scanned at checkpoints. The contact tracing apps are likely to become permanent features, for future pandemics and for surveillance more generally. "Embedded in the popular WeChat and Alipay smartphone apps, the codes use automatically collected travel and medical data to generate red, orange or green ratings indicating the likelihood of people having the virus," news agency Reuters reported.

Another lesson was the system's ability to gain access to, and control over, the private housing compounds in which most urban Chinese live. From the mid-1990s onwards, the private economy and housing market uprooted much of the Mao-era structure of neighbourhood committees, which had played an essential part in surveillance and reporting on citizens. In the COVID-19 crisis, the neighbourhood police state was rapidly remodelled, revitalised and remobilised to enforce quarantines.

In place of the old networks, the party commandeered the ubiquitous property management companies, which had been created to service the housing compounds and liaise with local governments when the real estate market was privatised. As early as January 28, the peak industry body issued an order that the companies organise residents and use their social media accounts to disseminate orders from the central government.

As a result, the party was able to turn the compounds into lockdown zones and ensure residents were checked as they went in and out of their apartments, if they were allowed to come and go at all. In Wuhan alone, the property associations were able to deploy 100,000 people – about 1 per cent of the city's population – across 2000 sites to enforce the lockdowns. For the authorities, it was vindication of Xi's policy of forcing private companies and civil society organisations to set up party cells so they could be activated in emergencies.

The associations themselves, and the big privately owned real estate companies that use them, such as Vanke, Wanda and Country Garden, had ample incentive to co-operate. The private property market relies on the government, as the state controls access to finance and land, and can cut recalcitrant companies off without recourse should they get into trouble.

The traditional neighbourhood committees played a role as well. Any resident who had passed through Wuhan was required to register with the committees, which in turn passed that information on to the police. The committees were responsible for telephoning any targeted person multiple times each day to ensure they were complying with quarantine regulations. According to one news article, a committee worker could expect to make, on average, 300 of these calls a day.

Leader's missteps

Despite the party's propaganda system being focused on President Xi, there were significant missteps and odd gaps in the leadership narrative.

In early February, at a moment when Beijing had not yet brought infections under control, the president authorised the publication of an article under his name in Qiushi, an authoritative party journal.

The article disclosed that Xi had delivered instructions at a January 7 Politburo meeting on the handling of the outbreak. If it was meant to show that he had acted with appropriate alacrity to a potentially deadly surge of the virus, it was an empty boast because authorities in Wuhan did not report any cases for more than a week afterwards. Nor did they publicise the concerns their city's doctors had about the virus.

On some occasions, Xi claimed he was intimately involved in day-to-day efforts to fight the virus. At other times, this language was dropped and Xi disappeared from public view.

For a period in late January, Xi handed responsibility for the crisis to Li. Although this made logistical sense – as head of government, Li is theoretically in charge of the daily operations of agencies – it was a rare retreat from a leader who has made sure he steers every important party and policymaking entity.

Li convened medical experts to prepare a briefing for Xi on his return from Myanmar and Yunnan. Li was the first leader to visit Wuhan itself, just a week later. He was also tasked with ensuring localities did not fabricate the number of infections in their areas – an issue that had hobbled China's response to the SARS crisis in 2003.

While Xi and Li drifted in and out of the picture in public during the crisis, the PLA was involved from the moment the CDC declared the virus a national emergency.

In early February, Xi referred to the battle against the crisis as "the people's war", a term in China which relates to a whole-of-society approach to both civil and military conflict. In Chinese, the character for plague sounds similar to the character for military campaign. From the moment of the PLA's mobilisation, in Xi's statements and elsewhere, the official narrative of the COVID-19 crisis took on strong war-like undertones. Aside from treating the emergency as a military campaign, numerous war analogies – such as talk of defensive battles, total war, and struggle – were commonly used in the official media.

The battle over the coronavirus in China was never just about public health. For the CCP, like everything, it was and remains primarily a contest of politics, in which the party-state benchmarks itself against other governing systems, especially the US.

Whereas the CCP once habitually described the party-state according to its unique "Chinese" characteristics, Xi has struck a more messianic note. Unlike his predecessors, he has promoted what he calls the "China solution" as a kind of a la carte statist model that foreigners can borrow from to develop their own governing systems. Western democracies, primarily the US, have long sold their model overseas. Xi has made it clear that China intends to compete.

As soon as infections began to fall at home, Beijing's diplomatic network was activated to offer versions of the "China solution" to the coronavirus, convening video conferences with Pacific nations ministers and seeding YouTube with Arabic-language broadcasts for the Middle East. Beijing also airlifted tonnes of masks and other medical equipment to scores of countries across the world.

Propaganda campaign

By mid-April, Beijing felt confident enough about the declining rate of infections in Wuhan to lift the blockade on the city. Given it had been the epicentre of the crisis only two months earlier, it was a symbolic declaration of victory. The propaganda campaign that followed, along the lines of how China beat the virus, had two target audiences: one at home, and the other overseas.

One may have worked. The other, directed at foreign countries, often backfired, especially in developed nations. The political and propaganda system, accustomed to deploying tried and tested methods in a largely controlled environment when facing inwards, often misfires abroad.

In Xi's February article in Qiushi, an entire section was given over to the need to "control the narrative" of the unfolding drama and keeping the "positive effects" of the party's work at the forefront. The article included an emphasis on the party centre's decisions, positive stories of heroism, and the redirection of attention towards other, unrelated policy objectives, such as poverty elimination. Xi also emphasised the need for China to present a united face to the world.

Much of the Chinese propaganda ostensibly directed at foreign countries is, of course, for domestic consumption. Xi's extolling of the "China solution", along with the country's rising power and wealth, has exponentially elevated praise and advocacy in local propaganda organs of the benefits of party rule.

In the words of Chinese scholar Wang Xiaohong, democratic governments are characterised by division and inefficiency, and "endless power transitions and social chaos". In China, by contrast, "the new type of political party system has overcome all sorts of problems that the old [one] can't overcome".

This same message, however, landed with a thud overseas. China had received international aid in the early stages of the pandemic, which it had asked the donor countries not to publicise. When the aid began flowing in the opposite direction – from China to many countries and cities around the world, including to the US and Europe – the Chinese donors demanded that the recipients highlight their generosity.

China's behaviour subsequently prompted backlashes of varying intensity from numerous countries. Issues of contention included Chinese criticism of nations for their handling of the crisis; the alleged spreading of conspiracy theories by foreign ministries about the origins of the virus; Beijing's initial belligerent rejection of calls by Australia for an independent inquiry into mismanagement in Wuhan; China's mistreatment of foreigners within its borders; and the state's often over-the-top "mask diplomacy".

Chinese ambassadors on three continents were called in by their host countries for official complaints about their or their governments' behaviour. There were exceptions. China received praise in a number of European countries, such as Italy, Bulgaria and Serbia.

The Chinese system proved susceptible to getting the country, and later the world, into the COVID-19 crisis. That same system was also instrumental in getting China out. It does not follow, however, that China's handling of the emergency provides a model for the rest of the world.

Although some have argued that particular governing systems are better suited than others to handle a pandemic, the evidence does not bear that out. Some democracies, including Taiwan, South Korea, Denmark, New Zealand and, until the outbreak in Melbourne, Australia, did comparatively well. Others, such as the US, the UK, Spain and Italy, floundered, racking up large death tolls and infection rates.

The true divide has not been between democratic and authoritarian states, nor between the West and Asia, or any other region. In general, competent states with intact, functioning institutions handled the initial challenge of the new coronavirus better than weak or frayed states with debilitated and divided systems.

The inbuilt incentives in the Chinese system, both generally, and especially in January itself, all mitigated against openness when the new coronavirus was first detected in December 2019. Likewise, the unparalleled ability of the system to mobilise resources, enforce quarantines and trace the contacts of infected individuals helped get China, and its economy, back on its feet faster than many other countries. Other nations, however, achieved similar results without ditching their democratic principles.

If Beijing had been open about its own early failings, instead of triumphantly promoting its later achievements, China's global image might have been enhanced by the crisis. Outside China, however, for the most part, the opposite is the case.

This is an edited extract from the Lowy Institute research note China’s Deep State: The Communist Party and the Coronavirus.

Areas of expertise: China’s political system and the workings and structure of the communist party; China’s foreign relations, with an emphasis on ties with Japan, the two Koreas, and Southeast Asia; Australia’s relations with Asia.