The ends have always justified the means for Chinese officials. The Chinese development strategy of maintaining high levels of economic growth through single-mindedly emphasizing globalization has been effective, but it has come at the cost of individual liberties. The social contract established by President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian model is one that strips the Chinese people of free speech in exchange for steadily improving living and working conditions. But governmental handling of the recent coronavirus outbreak has upset this agreement.
A glance at the current state of affairs in Wuhan, where forcible quarantines due to coronavirus concerns have led to wartime-esque living conditions, casts a doubtful light on the government’s ability to maintain their obligations. China’s economy is now growing at its slowest rate in three decades. As many as 55 million civilians have had severe restrictions placed on their ability to travel. Xi is clearly not holding up his end of the deal, and his political model’s extreme efforts of information control are to blame.
Symptoms of coronavirus first cropped up in Wuhan at the beginning of December 2019. By the end of the month, a small number of Wuhan’s quick-witted doctors had already caught onto the impending public health nightmare, and were working diligently to warn adjacent medical circles. One such doctor named Li Wenliang notified a group of his former medical school classmates, urging them to protect themselves. Meanwhile, screenshots of his warning began to spread beyond Wuhan and into Beijing, the nation’s political epicenter. That would have been the opportune time for Beijing to launch a coordinated response to the virus by sending medical reinforcements to Wuhan in the name of prioritizing public wellbeing.
Chinese officials did act promptly—just not against the virus. Instead, they acted to silence the doctors who were attempting to warn the masses of the threat that lay dormant in their midst. In particular, Li was jailed, condemned, and made to publicly repent for his alleged fear-mongering, all while the dangers he heralded began to fester in Wuhan. His calls for the prioritization of public health—something world leaders are depended upon to protect—were subdued in the political interest of maintaining peace in the weeks leading up to the annual People’s Congress meeting. Instead of heeding these perceptive whistleblowers’ call to action, Xi metaphorically spat in their faces.
After Li returned to Wuhan to aid in the undermanned fight against the still publicly unrecognized outbreak, China continued to keep its citizens in the dark about the increasingly severe situation and about ways to protect themselves. Only in late January did Xi publicize the issue by ordering a lockdown on travel to and from Wuhan, but not before some five million people had already fled the city, potentially spreading the virus far and wide, elevating the issue from its Chinese roots to the world stage. Perhaps even more disheartening, this effort came after Li himself had already contracted the virus while tirelessly treating patients. Sadly, he died recently, on February 7, 2020.
Yet Li lives on in the hearts of millions as the face of the human response to the coronavirus epidemic—and, more implicitly, of the dangers of Chinese information control. His death is more than just a blip in the greater course of the coronavirus campaign—it is a sobering rebuke of Xi’s autocratic model which gags and conceals independent thought and discovery to maintain centralized political power for power’s sake. Medical incompetence is not what allowed coronavirus to escape the city of Wuhan—Chinese information control is.
Had Beijing handled Li’s omen with the respect and intensity it deserved, coronavirus could have likely been contained and its effects minimized. Because of Xi’s delay in publicly acknowledging the situation, hospitals were unable to gather the necessary supplies before waves of the infected crashed onto them. The rush to identify and treat all of the victims was limited by an extreme lack of testing kits and protective gear. Due to the shortage of equipment, some doctors, in a last ditch effort to protect themselves in their lines of duty, even resorted to creating makeshift goggles out of plastic folders.
The coronavirus exposes a fundamental flaw of Xi’s authoritarian technique. Yes, by keeping government power at the heart of China’s being, Beijing can move mountains in a flash, allowing for such gargantuan undertakings as building new hospitals in Wuhan in a mere ten days, or quarantining the entire city in what feels like an instant. However, the time it takes for Beijing to recognize that taking such measures is necessary tends to be far too long. The deprioritization of independent media and individual thought in China, and their delegitimization, has led the central government to be reluctant to act upon vital, often time-sensitive discoveries. As a consequence, heroes like Li become collateral damage from a societal-governmental machine that is unquestionably powerful, but too slow and inflexible to provide necessary support when most needed.
As a result, the Chinese government is well suited to responding to a crisis, but not so apt at preventing one before it explodes. Millions of citizens both within China and abroad are paying a steep price in concern, stress, actual costs, and lives lost for Beijing’s inefficiency. Though the vast majority of cases remain in Mainland China, all but three continents currently harbor cases of the virus. Approximately 80 percent of the manufacturing industry in China has been closed due to safety concerns. For an ordinary nation, this would be little more than a minor nuisance for the global community, but China accounts for 17 percent of the world’s economy. The world’s suffering is intrinsically bound to China’s suffering, and right now the world is reeling—and all for an issue that could have likely been squelched if its emergence had been handled with a bit more urgency.
The question then shifts to whether or not Beijing will learn anything from its fumbling of the coronavirus experience. Though the Chinese government is a centralized, one-party behemoth with the power to quickly muzzle individual muckrakers, there are still limits to the number of people it can simultaneously control. These limits are being tested as millions of Chinese citizens are growing rightfully outraged over Li’s needless death and are taking to social media to voice their indignation. Specifically, members of the Chinese public have been quick to identify gaps in the narrative being fed to them, piecing together the events that led to such careless treatment of a delicate situation.
An unintended side effect of China’s monolithic government is fragmented policy implementation. The local and central governments are rarely in harmony, which creates considerable gaps between the inception of policy and the realization of policy. As a result, independent Chinese media outlets have small windows in which they can inform the public of the specifics of their government’s blunders. The Chinese public has thus been clued into vital pieces of information on the coronavirus situation, the most notable of which being Li’s death, which the Chinese government fought tooth and nail to conceal.
China’s citizens must continue to raise social media hell to show Beijing the error of its ways. For a government such as China’s, which holds the principle of information control at the heart of its modus operandi, it is particularly problematic and pressure-inducing when citizens unify and begin to deduce information themselves. The people of China must not back down. Beijing’s predilection for information control can be exposed if the Chinese public uses the resources and opportunities available to them to try to hold their omnipotent government accountable for falling short on its promises: both to prevent an incident like the coronavirus outbreak from repeating itself, and to give actual public servants like Li the support—and closure—that they deserve.
The image featured with this article is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License. The original image was taken by SISTEMA 12 and can be found here.