OPINION: The state in the time of an epidemic

KATHMANDU, Nepal (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - China’s handling of the Wuhan outbreak provides a road map for countries with centralising tendencies.

Like other epidemics in the recent past—SARS, Ebola, H1N1—Covid-19 has had its fair share of rumours, conspiracies and misinformation floating around the internet. A news outlet has identified nearly 25 different false updates about the virus. This is excluding the conspiracy that the virus was man-made either in a Wuhan lab itself or by the Americans, depending on where you lived. Some of the misinformation campaigns have been openly racist and have generalised the Chinese people, suggesting that tribalism will always remain a fallback option in human nature.

What’s interesting, however, about this particular epidemic are a few points that reveal some dynamics about China and our world today. The first is, the epidemic notwithstanding, the control of the popular narrative about Covid-19 is itself an extension of the Sino-US strategic contest. The second, that the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) management of the epidemic—not the medical part, but political, administrative and the media-based—is a lesson in governance for political systems with centralising tendencies like ours.

The opening salvo came with the Chinese foreign ministry saying most countries had appreciated China’s efforts in fighting the virus, but the US has 'inappropriately overreacted… The US government hasn't provided any substantive assistance to us, but it was the first to evacuate personnel from its consulate in Wuhan, the first to suggest partial withdrawal of its embassy staff, and the first to impose a travel ban on Chinese travelers. What it has done could only create and spread fear, which is a very bad example.' The next day, China said it was 'deeply touched' by Japan (historical ties between the two have been bitter) and the other countries who had shown it support and understanding.

Although Donald Trump that weekend tweeted that Xi Jinping was 'powerfully focused on leading the counterattack on the Coronavirus', China’s patience was tested. When an international team of World Health Organisation specialists reached China last week to study the Chinese public health response to the disease, the Americans were not invited. The fact that the Wall Street Journal, perhaps the most influential business daily in the world, had published an op-ed with a clickbait of a headline titled ‘China is the real sick man of Asia’ probably didn’t help matters either. China on Wednesday revoked the press credentials of three WSJ journalists over the ‘racist headline’. But it could be equally peeved at five of its media wings being designated as foreign missions in the US.

While the contours of a new world order are yet to be etched in more permanent ink, China’s scathing response tells us the neo-cold war with the US will equally be a contest of narrative. Beijing, now more than at any other time, wants the world (especially its allies) to know it is perfectly capable of handling the epidemic on its own, and that the global media should follow its version of the truth. The Nepali tourism minister certainly agrees. In turn, provocative generalisations like the WSJ headline that harken back to China’s ‘century of humiliation’ will further allow the CCP to galvanise its citizens (and well-wishers) under the nationalism umbrella.

The second is a lesson in governance. The Caixin daily, perhaps one of China’s finest news outlets, revealed the Wuhan local government’s month-long cover-up which enabled the spread of the disease. After the death of Dr Li Wenliang, a whistleblower who’d tried to warn other doctors of the new disease and was reprimanded for 'spreading online rumours' and asked to sign a letter by the Wuhan police, from Covid-19, there was an extraordinary turn of events in the aftermath of the public outrage at Li’s death. In what was a first, the onus of Li’s death was put squarely on the Wuhan local authorities, and even the state media wrote 'many have criticised formalism and excessive bureaucracy in local governance'. Such direct criticism of government authorities is rare in China, and even rarer when public outrage contrary to government expectations is acknowledged.

Further, several analysts noted that the permissibility of outrage on Chinese social media sites like Sina Weibo and traditional media is unprecedented. 'While usually quick to remove any significant criticism of governmental entities, Internet censors have allowed an unusually large, and often unusually harsh, volume of criticism to remain highly visible, both on social media and in the press… There seems to be a general recognition across the state apparatus that aggressive suppression of public criticism will lead to a potentially unmanageable backlash—in other words, that public unhappiness has already reached such a critical level that the only truly viable response is appeasement.'

Reading too much into the outrage is futile; however, for countries with centralising tendencies like ours, it provides a roadmap towards political management in the future. The central leadership of the party has been shielded from the botched response. The Hubei (where Wuhan is located) party leadership has been replaced by officials close to the president, signalling local units will be held far more accountable than the central leadership, and that they can be thrown under the bus if push comes to shove. And finally, pointing the finger at local units also shields the centre—in this case, the CCP—from citizens who want to question its legitimacy to rule.

The response to dissent has followed a similar pattern. While Dr Li has been hailed as a hero, scholar Xu Zhangrun, who critiqued Xi Jinping’s handling of the crisis in an essay titled ‘When fury overcomes fear’, has been placed under house arrest, while two other Wuhan citizen-journalists have gone missing. What’s common between all three (and the article which this newspaper reprinted to earn the ire of the Chinese embassy) is their pointed criticism of the CCP leadership and questioning the party’s legitimacy to rule China.

This brings us to another lesson to be drawn from the response to Covid-19: the epidemic is 'a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance' according to Xi Jinping himself, and the massive disruption of lives, cities and transportation systems are equally a display of Chinese state power, as an analyst has argued. Chinese state authority and power has grown tremendously since the days of SARS; however, 'what is not yet so clear is whether the Chinese state is getting better at deploying that power in service of the public interest.'

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