The Covid-19 epidemic poses political risks for China’s leadership. It’s now on President Xi Jinping to deliver security and prosperity while trying to solve a serious public health crisis. Meanwhile, dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the situation is growing online.
Chen Quishi is no longer posting online. In late January, he snuck into Wuhan — the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak — with a backpack, a sleeping bag and a smartphone. It was the day after authorities had sealed off the city. The 34-year-old Chen, a lawyer, has made a name for himself as a blogger. In Wuhan, he saw hopelessly overcrowded hospitals, used face masks littering the streets and vomit in front of a clinic; he watched as a nurse who had been infected broke down screaming in panic. The clips he shared online showed a city in a state of emergency.
“I’m afraid,” Chen said in one of his videos. “In front of me is the disease, behind me is China’s legal and administrative power. But as long as I’m alive, I’ll speak what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard.” He added: “Why should I be afraid of you, Communist Party?”
Almost two weeks ago, Chen disappeared. Friends of his say the authorities put him under “quarantine,” where he’s apparently not allowed to use a phone, and his whereabouts are unclear. Before his disappearance, the police had urged Chen’s parents to stop their son from “spreading negative comments about the government.” The blogger was obviously shedding light on things the government would have preferred to keep in the dark. Xi Jinping, the Chinese president and general secretary of the country’s all-powerful Communist Party, has declared a “people’s war” against the disease, which, since last week, is being called Covid-19. In such a war, a blogger operating as a free agent could pose a threat.
China is currently waging battles on three fronts: On one of them, there are doctors, nurses, scientists and civil servants fighting for public health — not to mention hundreds of millions of ordinary citizens who are trying to avoid contact with others, washing their hands constantly and wearing protective masks when they leave the house.
On the second front, the battle for the economy has only just begun, after the extended New Year’s holiday came to an end last Monday. It will be fought in the coming weeks and months by companies, employees, bankers and policymakers.
The battle on the third front is, by contrast, well underway and is unfolding online. And in that fight, no less than the legitimacy of China’s rulers is at stake. After all, it is the Communist Party that is responsible for citizens’ well-being. Should it give the impression that it’s failing in that duty, one pillar of its power begins to crumble. The virus, in other words, is also a grave political threat.
An ‘Existential Crisis’
Many cities have now been sealed off, with public life in Beijing and other metropolises having ground to a halt. According to the World Health Organization, as of Sunday, Feb. 16, there had been 51,174 laboratory-confirmed infections and 1,666 deaths in China alone. There is little doubt that party cadres, with their cover-ups and delaying tactics in the early days of the epidemic, bear some responsibility for the fact that the virus was able to spread throughout the entire country.
Had officials in Hubei province not attempted to suppress warnings about the virus for so long, SARS-CoV-2 may have been contained sooner and more efficiently. Since the outbreak began, high-ranking public and Communist Party officials have had to vacate their posts, including the party leader of Hubei province with its 58 million inhabitants.
An added complication for the Communist Party is the fact that this is the first major catastrophe that Beijing has had to face in real time in the age of social media — and the displeasure expressed by millions of Chinese online has been significant. For one, users have criticized the fact that Xi, the party leader, was absent for so long as the crisis unfolded, instead sending his prime minister, Li Keqiang, into the spotlight. From late January to the middle of February, there were hardly any new photos of Xi. “Where is this person?” people asked on the Chinese internet, until the censors understood and blocked such messages.
Bill Bishop, the author of a newsletter about China widely read by experts, even went so far as to write that the Communist Party had not come as close to an “existential crisis” since the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square.
The uproar online may have factored into Xi’s decision to now take charge of the situation publicly. Last Monday, he visited a hospital in Beijing, where he had a nurse take his temperature and spoke words of encouragement to doctors and other health workers. This gave state media cause for celebration: Xi’s visit was “boosting the faith in national strength and an unconquerable will to win,” wrote the party’s official Xinhua news agency.
A Temporary Reprieve
The regime now has to strike a delicate balance. On the one hand, it must be transparent as it deals with the spread of the virus, including keeping the international community informed. On the other hand, it must do what it can to prevent frustration expressed online from turning into lasting, fundamental resentment.
Since early December, the debate over the virus has gone through several stages. “In the first phase, there was a deliberate attempt to suppress any expression about the possibility of an epidemic,” says Victor Gao, vice president of the Center for China and Globalization, an influential think tank in Beijing. Gao was an English interpreter for the former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, so he’s not exactly one of the regime’s most outspoken critics. “There was a deliberate exercise of censorship by various levels of government, starting in Wuhan and Hubei. In some instances, there were vested interests behind it — for example, they didn’t want the city to look like it was in panic or become the target of a lot of criticism and condemnation.”
One victim of this cover-up was Li Wenliang, the now world-famous doctor from Wuhan who warned colleagues about the emergence of a new SARS-like virus at the end of December. He did so in a closed group chat, and Li asked his co-workers to be discreet. But that didn’t help him when his message was leaked to the outside world. He was summoned by one authority after another, first by the local health commission, then a Communist Party cell at his hospital and finally by the police. There would be consequences, he was told, if he continued to “spread rumors.” When the authorities finally informed the public about the new coronavirus, they initially played down the danger it posed.
It wasn’t until the epidemiologist Zhong Nan-shan announced on Jan. 20 that the pathogen could be transmitted between humans that the spectrum of what was permissible to say widened, if only for a short time. Journalists were dispatched to the region and they didn’t shy away from sharing even the most sensitive reports. That was when the Beijing Youth Daily interviewed Li, who by that time had fallen ill himself. The magazine Caixin quoted a leading Hong Kong researcher who said the epidemic could cause 10 times as much damage as the SARS pathogen from 2003. No fewer than 37 journalists formed the team behind a four-part series published by Caixin outlining the failure of the Wuhan authorities in granular detail.
Square Dancing, Tai Chi and Hearty Meals
Censorship was also temporarily loosened on social media. Phone videos showed crying nurses, crowded emergency rooms and body bags. Why the censors allowed so many critical posts to stay online is anybody’s guess. Perhaps they wanted to give citizens an outlet to vent their frustrations. Or maybe it was because those frustrations were primarily directed at local party cadres and not at Beijing.
But ever since the authorities closed down Wuhan and the central government took over as crisis manager at the end of January, the long-established rules for public discourse have been restored. Criticism of the government is blocked and censorship has picked up again. Xi Jinping, for his part, issued a directive to strengthen “public opinion guidance.” The party’s propaganda department also sent 300 employees “to the front in Hubei and Wuhan” to tell uplifting stories from the epicenter of the outbreak.
The Xinhua news agency, for instance, filmed “optimistic patients” swaying together to music as they stood next to their hospital beds. The government affiliated Global Times quoted infected people in Wuhan saying they felt “at home” in their makeshift clinic thanks to “square dancing, tai chi and hearty meals.”
The question of who is to blame for the outbreak has already been decided. “At the center, there’s always this proclivity: Beijing good and smart, the provinces crooked and dumb,” says Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. The badly hit city of Huanggang, for instance, punished several hundred officials for alleged mismanagement. Party comrades from Zhejiang province faced a similar fate.
The mayor of Wuhan, on the other hand, is still in office. He pointed out that his hands had been tied due to a law preventing provincial leaders from declaring an outbreak without express permission from Beijing. McGregor says the mayor has a point: “The idea that this is all Wuhan’s fault — I can’t see that.”
The System Prevails
In that light, it is significant how the government in Beijing has dealt with the grief and anger that appeared online after the doctor Li Wenliang died. After he become infected with Covid-19, his fight for life had turned into a drama. At first, though, it was unclear whether Li had died at all. The Global Times was the only medium to report his death, but it quickly took down the story. In the end, many Chinese felt deceived.
Hashtags demanding freedom of speech received millions of clicks. On Weibo and WeChat, popular Chinese social media and messaging services, images of burning candles were everywhere. So too was a caricature of Li with a face mask made of barbed wire. Professors and lawyers drew up two petitions demanding freedom of the press.
The Communist Party’s response has been to declare the late doctor a hero. The authorities also announced they would send a team of investigators to Wuhan. The message from headquarters was this: Wuhan’s local leaders may have done Li a disservice, but Beijing stands by him.
Even critics of the central government don’t believe the stability of the system is yet in danger, though the coming weeks will likely be decisive. At the end of the holidays, millions of migrant workers returned to their factories and offices, while life in China’s cities is returning to normal. People are getting back in touch with each other.
The National People’s Congress is scheduled to convene in Beijing in early March for one of the most important dates on the Chinese political calendar. If it were to be cancelled, it would severely harm confidence in leaders’ ability to manage the crisis.
One man who signed one of the petitions for freedom of expression says he thinks a turning point has been reached in Chinese history. “This is the first time in 20 years that I’ve seen so many people in China express negative feelings toward the Communist Party,” says Wu Qiang, a former lecturer in politics at Beijing’s renowned Tsinghua University. It may take a while, but “personally, I think this is the starting point of a revolution in China,” he says.
So far, however, most people don’t share Wu’s assessment. He lost his job at the university because he wanted to teach his students about social movements. And because he spoke to foreign media too much. The party wasn’t fond of either. As it so often does, the system prevailed.