China’s coronavirus epidemic shows strengths, flaws of one country, one system

Jun Mai

Beijing has long said that the Chinese system of one-party rule and top-down decision-making has brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and is the most effective form of governance for the world’s most populous country.

When faced with the brewing public health crisis brought on by the Covid-19 epidemic in the central Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of 2019 that same system acted in ways unheard of under democratic forms of government.

They included the shutdown of a city of 11 million people, almost three times the population of Los Angeles, spread over an area five times the size of London. And that was just for starters.

It does not take much of an imagination to speculate that such measures in either of those Western cities would have resulted in public uproar and protests on the streets.

In South Korea, for example, thousands of protesters on February 22 defied a ban on public gatherings implemented by the government after a jump in infections in that country.

That did not happen in Wuhan nor in the rest of Hubei province, where the measures were extended to envelop almost 60 million people.

Or at least as far as has been reported, which points to the potential flaws in the same centralised China system that restricts information flow. It also stresses following orders from above, which has been shown to have sped up the response in some respects, but delayed it in others.

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The World Health Organisation is one body that has said Beijing’s efforts to control the outbreak deserves the thanks of the international community.

The WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met China’s President Xi Jinping in January and was later cited by local media as saying “China’s speed, China’s scale and China’s efficiency … is the advantage of China’s system”.

The WHO head later pushed back against criticism of these comments, saying China did many good things to slow down the virus. Xi also said was he was confident of stopping the outbreak because of the “strong leadership of the Communist Party”.

The actions taken by China are almost unthinkable in Western countries, both politically and technically, said Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the New York-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations.

“In the West, it’d be a very difficult decision to make, in legal and ethical terms,” he said, adding it would be almost logistically impossible elsewhere and showcases the idea of socialism as defined by China’s Communist Party.

“It was a top-down decision, and of course the people of Wuhan were never consulted,” he said. “Measures should have been taken earlier but at that point it was a last resort, or the entire country will become like Wuhan after the holiday.”

Another significant element to the lock-down decision by Beijing is the timing.

It was ordered directly by Xi on January 23, just one day before China’s Lunar New Year’s Eve – the country’s biggest holiday and a time when hundreds of millions of Chinese people travel both within China to visit family and overseas for vacation.

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At a press conference on February 13, the WHO chief Tedros said another board member of the global health body had called China’s decision to lock down Wuhan “heroic”.

While the virus did spread in China – all the country’s provinces eventually reported cases – and spread overseas to dozens of countries, infecting and killing as it went, medical authorities other than the WHO have indicated China’s unprecedented clampdown did check the disease.

“No other country could mobilise resources and manpower at such speed,” said an editorial by the medical journal The Lancet on February 17.

President Xi Jinping has expressed frustration at the slow response. Photo: Xinhua

That was partly a reference to building two makeshift hospitals in about a week to provide 2,000 beds; commandeering universities, convention centres and high schools as 13 temporary hospitals; and bringing in about 33,000 medical staff from around the country.

On February 23, one month after the Wuhan lockdown started, 20 provinces in China reported no new infections. Also, 80 per cent of China’s confirmed infections and 95 per cent of fatalities from the virus were within Hubei province where Wuhan city is located, indicating the measures had success.

“Unlimited government can be very powerful and provide a comprehensive solution in a crisis, once the leadership is committed,” said Huang. “It can penetrate right to the bottom of society, and as in the case of birth control, right into people’s bedrooms.”

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In other words, the system of governance that makes such a response to the virus outbreak possible includes methods regarded as unacceptably intrusive in many other countries.

Huang’s comments about birth control refer to China’s introduction of the one-child policy in the 1970s to control population growth.

This involved the use of community-level administrations, known as jiedao, that helped implement the birth-control policy even to the point of checking neighbourhood women’s periods to monitor unreported pregnancies.

The jiedao systen kicked into action again in the virus response, setting up local watch stations on the streets to check people’s movements, stop people to take their temperature, and call households by telephone to check on residents. Beside the low-tech checkpoints, hi-tech was also roped in.

China’s three state-run telecom carriers kept location and travel records for every user in the country for the previous two weeks, which could be called up on the phone to present at health checkpoints. Any record of a trip to Hubei province would ring a bell.

The country is also home to 70 per cent of the world’s civilian drones, which were used to take body temperature checks from balconies at residential compounds. They even buzzed around peeking into living rooms to see if any group gatherings were taking place against official advice, including mahjong parties.

The law was on the state’s side, too. Concealing recent travel to Hubei was punishable under as a danger to public security.

But such a system that monopolised directions from the top down, contained legions of officials and bureaucrats in multiple layers of administration waiting for orders to act.

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When an unexpected event like a new virus sprang up and caused an outbreak at the grass-roots level in Wuhan, indications are that as local medical authorities warned of the threat, the local political system froze and information was withheld.

In January, as public discontent grew over the handling of the outbreak, questions started to be asked about why updates on the situation had not been released earlier – forcing Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang to say he needed approval from more senior officials to release the information to the public. Again, waiting for orders.

The epidemic has shown that a number of Chinese officials and most Chinese people are still thinking in ways from a peasant economy, wrote Professor Jiang Shigong, a law professor with Peking University and an adviser to Beijing.

Public anger then blew out through social media when it was announced that Li Wenliang had died. He was a doctor who had been reprimanded by police after trying to warn his colleagues about the new coronavirus before becoming infected himself.

The death of Li Wenliang prompted a wave of public anger. Photo: AFP

Amid that anger calls arose for more freedom of speech, not just from the public but in a statement from academics that called for a return to the collective leadership system that was in place before Xi consolidated power into his hands.

The seeming incompetence of local officials did not help the picture.

Wang Xiaodong, the governor of Hubei province, was attacked on social media after a press conference in late January. He announced the province had the ability to produce 10.8 billion surgical masks, before an aide passed him a note and he corrected himself to 10.8 million.

Xi himself showed signs of frustration with the system and, in an apparent attempt to break through layers of bureaucracy, he spoke directly to a total of 170,000 cadres around the country in a televised speech on the epidemic, an unprecedented move.

People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, said on a social media account it runs that it was to avoid instructions becoming “distorted” as they were handed down.

But others pointed to the problems caused by a heavily centralised and opaque governance system, which has grown increasingly so under Xi.

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Xu Zhangrun, a law professor with Tsinghua University, wrote in an article published on overseas Chinese-language websites that the incompetence was structural and was caused by Xi’s emphasis on political loyalty over governance skills.

“The Chinese system does show more efficiency in a crisis, especially so as it enters the private sector and private lives,” said Gu Su, a political scientist at Nanjing University. “But in terms of governance, a timely response still means much and could have saved lots of extra costs in latter stage.

“We repeatedly see the same mistakes like low level cover-ups and sitting on information instead of making a decision.”

Huang, from the US Council on Foreign Relations agreed. “If people inside the system can’t tell a crisis in front of their eyes, or don’t dare tell, or is not willing to, or is not recognised even after he does, we have a real problem” he said.

“We can’t claim the system has advantages if it encourages inaction and cover-ups and only responds fully in the face of a crisis.”

Illustration: Lau Ka-kuen

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