President Xi Jinping’s surprise visit to Wuhan—the epicentre of the global COVID-19 pandemic—on March 10 is a clear sign China’s party-state now believes it has the new coronavirus under control. Moreover, it is a signal China’s leaders believe their political model is succeeding where other systems are failing.
Xi and the Chinese Communist Party he leads had faced unprecedented public anger for its initial response to the coronavirus. Although China did notify the World Health Organization about the outbreak on December 31, authorities quashed all public discussion—most notably, reprimanding a doctor for “posting false statements” to an internet chat group—and continued to hold large-scale public events, including local legislative meetings and Lunar New Year celebrations, even as the number of new cases was exploding. It was only three weeks later, on January 23, that China’s leaders acknowledged the scale of the outbreak by placing the entire city of Wuhan under lockdown.
Outside China, some observers saw these failures as evidence that the very nature of China’s authoritarian political system—especially under Xi, whom many consider China’s strongest leader in decades—made it harder to respond to crises like the coronavirus. Others even suggested COVID-19 could be “China’s Chernobyl”—a crisis of political legitimacy like the 1986 nuclear accident that hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But as the number of COVID-19 cases in China continues to fall—while rising in liberal democracies like Italy, the United States, and Canada—Xi and his allies in the party-state now feel vindicated. For China, the coronavirus has only validated the current leadership’s deep-seated belief in tight social control and surveillance, political centralization and strict party discipline, and the value of propaganda in mobilizing the masses and shaping perceptions.
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A Coercive Response
Once the outbreak became public, China’s response was unprecedented—and often coercive. Authorities placed some 60 million people in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei Province under strict quarantine. Within the hardest hit area, officials also conducted a door-to-door search for possible COVID-19 patients and sent them to makeshift isolation facilities, even against their will. In other cities far from the center of the outbreak, authorities imposed restrictions on how often residents could leave their homes, or tightened controls on citizens’ movements, using a mixture of old fashioned Mao-era “neighbourhood committees” and sophisticated new surveillance technology for enforcement.
Xi also shifted the blame for the party-state’s early mismanagement of the crisis to local officials in Wuhan. He fought back against suggestions he had let others take charge of China’s response to the outbreak, releasing an extraordinary internal speech where he declared he had “constantly followed the spread of the disease and the work to prevent and contain it, and have never stopped issuing oral orders and instructions.” At the same time, he also punished or fired hundreds of officials for “dereliction of duty” and other violations of Communist Party discipline, ranging from the deputy director of the local Red Cross to the Communist Party Secretary of Hubei Province—the latter replaced with a Xi proégé.
Perhaps most importantly, China launched a massive propaganda campaign to mobilize the nation during the crisis and bolster support for the Communist Party. Xi declared the fight against COVID-19 to be a “people’s war”—the same term used to describe Mao Zedong’s fight against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War (1945-49). Chinese media has repeatedly invoked strong military language to describe the “battle” against the virus, hailing medical workers as “front line heroes” and dubbing Xi ”The Commander.” Similarly, during his visit to Wuhan, Xi declared the “tide was turning,” as victory over the virus now appears in sight.
A People’s Victory?
Of course, not everyone in China seems convinced by the propaganda, nor does everyone believe victory against the virus excuses the party-state for its initial failures. Moreover, the broader economic crisis created by COVID-19 is far from over. China’s economy is struggling get back on its feet, and a global economic downturn will only hurt China’s own recovery. Worst of all, once Chinese workers return to their jobs, the virus could well come back in a second wave.
The coronavirus has also been a striking test of the party-state’s ability to maintain social control. Some of the methods China used to contain the virus seem to have been adapted from the party-state’s playbook for maintaining political stability—especially in Xinjiang, where hundreds of thousands of Uighurs have been “isolated” in internment camps since 2016. Newer methods of surveillance pioneered during the outbreak will likely join authorities’ toolkit for monitoring and controlling society.
Most critically, now that victory is on the horizon, China is likely to use its success fighting the coronavirus to demonstrate its political model can achieve results a liberal democracy cannot. When dissidents inside China—or governments in other countries—criticize the party-state for its human rights abuses, its one-party system, or its lack of press freedom, China’s leaders will respond simply by pointing to its containment of COVID-19: our system worked, and yours didn’t.
The stakes for liberal democracies to perform just as well as China are high—not just for global health, but for the future of the liberal international order.