“Spreading from Wuhan, engulfing the whole nation – the terror, the anxiety, the masks make the distance between people feel even farther,” whispers a voice during a new propaganda video circulated by Chinese state media.
It is difficult to overestimate the human cost of this tragedy. After the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, one billion Chinese people are wearing masks. Over seven hundred million are subject to travel restrictions. More than two thousand people have died. Families are separated, businesses have gone bankrupt, emergency phone calls go unanswered.
The premium placed on the control of information in Xi Jinping’s China has aggravated these distressing human costs.
In this version of China, a video of an overwhelmed medical professional calling his supervisor in tears is censored. A doctor warning medical colleagues in a group chat about the symptoms of what appears to be a new virus is risky. In that story, police arrive at his doorstep days later to muzzle him. The police probably didn’t know at that stage that the doctor’s warning was true, but the fact it was unapproved was enough to make it dangerous.
The maintenance of stability is paramount. And so, lower-level officials are discouraged from reporting any deviation from the plan up the line. Bad news often leads to individual punishment: the party-state can and does shoot the messenger. There are few incentives to be transparent.
The cover-up at the early stages of the virus is well-documented. The resulting chaos may have been unavoidable: no medical system could have coped well with the size and scale of this outbreak. But even as the death toll has risen and the virus has spread across the world, for Beijing the reflex to control has at times trumped lives.
The same centralised system that can quarantine one billion people and build a hospital in a week has sidelined civil society that often helps governments respond during crisis, and it shows.
The Communist Party-state’s distrust of civil society and independent media – viewed as potential threats to single-party rule – continues to leave it exposed. The information environment of censorship and fear limited the ability for the system to detect and report the initial cases in a transparent manner. And now the centralised system is struggling with resource allocation without the help of voluntary associations and church groups, for example.
Individuals who try to organise relief supplies could be in breach of NGO and charity laws. Medical supplies have sat in warehouses for days, while hospitals beg for reinforcements.
In the absence of civil society, crushed by a combination of official repression and regulation, it was apps that kept Wuhan going after the quarantine of 11 million people was announced. When the authorities and public services have been stretched to their limit, China’s tech companies – that dominate the market for online shopping, ride-sharing, courier services and food delivery – have kept Wuhan in operation.
But this version of a safety net can’t catch everyone: the poorest have been the most vulnerable in this crisis.
Even weeks into a country-wide quarantine, with these resource constraints on display, China has been reluctant to accept outside offers of assistance. Authorities do not want to be perceived as needing help, with the exception of donated supplies. The Chinese system capitulates to its worst instincts when it refuses to allow American health officials to visit, or prevents Americans from joining the World Health Organisation response team.
The WHO expert team arrived in China on February 17, though they have not been permitted to travel to Hubei province, ground zero for the epidemic. This is not a new problem: it took months of international criticism before China allowed international epidemiologists to visit Guangdong province during the SARS epidemic in 2003.
China also blocks Taiwan from attending WHO meetings. Under what other circumstances would 24 million people be excluded from participation in a global health response – which is only ever as strong as its weakest link? Beijing again allows political and diplomatic sensitivities to interfere with the administration of global health and safety. In 2003, it was only after SARS fatalities that China allowed the WHO to send inspectors to Taiwan.
The rest of the world is understandably planning for economic shocks and disruptions to global supply chains, and focused on public health and border management. But this response is in danger of overlooking the people at the centre of this tragedy.
The flaws in Xi Jinping’s autocracy have been exposed, with unusual public displays of frustration and anger in China palpable even through heavily censored social media. The state narrative in response has been a war cry: 1.4 billion Chinese citizens are soldiers on the front lines of the people’s battle.
It remains unclear how much longer this battle will rage, but the ultimate price for Beijing’s instincts to centralise and control is being paid by the people.