The ongoing COVID-19 (also commonly referred to as coronavirus) outbreak has infected more than 1.4 million individuals and killed roughly 80,000 globally. While the disease has killed almost 3,400 people in China, the death rate outside of China has significantly surpassed those in the country and continues to rise. China’s rigid security apparatus intentionally barred local bureaucrats from sharing much-needed information with the public and medical experts during early stages of a crisis. The suppression of these key details led to Beijing’s initial foot-dragging when COVID-19 started spreading across China in December 2019. When Beijing’s long-held priority of stability maintenance conflicted with much needed information flow during the initial outbreak, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) initially chose the former.
Yet, once Beijing realized the seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak, it acted swiftly to slow down the spread of the virus, including locking down the city of Wuhan, where the virus began, and the surrounding Hubei Province. Beijing’s draconian measures appear to have been effective as the number of deaths and new cases have dropped dramatically. Although the true toll of COVID-19 in China may remain a mystery for years to come, Beijing has gone on the offensive to take the leadership role in the global struggle against the virus, such as sending aid to Italy and other European countries besieged by the disease. Ultimately, as the virus spreads outside China, the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer limited within the sovereign borders of one particular country. International collaboration – not the pointing of fingers or the spreading of conspiracy theories – is needed to contain the spread.
Original Sin: China’s Stability Maintenance System
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Wuhan on March 10 aimed at telling both the outside world and the domestic audience that the extreme measures implemented by China’s authoritarian government, like the lockdown of Wuhan, were effective at stemming the spread of COVID-19. As the number of infections in China continues to drop, the Chinese propaganda campaign has shifted to contrast China’s domestic success with the rapidly rising number of cases overseas and to cast doubt on the virus’ origin. This shift in narratives is aimed at distracting the Chinese public from the CCP’s delayed response to the outbreak and its obsession with stability maintenance, which caused the delayed response. Wuhan hosted the “two sessions”–legislative sessions that often function as a rubber stamp for party officials–from January 6 to 17 to discuss local issues and bolster the Party’s positive image as problem-solvers. During the “two sessions,” local authorities always mobilize the stability maintenance system to prevent potential dissidents from challenging such positive images of the Party and its leadership.
Therefore, when hospitals in Wuhan started to discover the novel coronavirus from recently-admitted patients, the local government was incentivized to cover up these undesirable issues from the national government. The Wuhan police then arrested eight doctors in late December, including Dr. Li Wenliang, for sharing information about the coronavirus in WeChat groups and charged them with “spreading rumors and disrupting social order.” Dr. Li would later become a symbol of unprecedented public anger toward China’s stability maintenance system after his death from COVID-19. As a result, during the “two sessions,” the health commission of Wuhan’s daily updates reported that there were “no new cases of infection and no firm evidence of human transmission.”
When angry citizens found out about the initial cover-up and targeted mayor Zhou Xianwang for his government’s incompetence, the mayor passed the buck to Beijing by claiming that he needed the central government’s authorization before he could alert the public. Beijing kicked the blame back by claiming that Xi had been directing the fight against the virus since January 7. They added that the National Health Commission had sent multiple medical groups to Wuhan, but they need local officials’ cooperation in order to work on epidemic prevention.
In this new landscape, political stability trumps all other considerations.
The buck passing between the local and central government is caused by the changing political environment in the Xi era. In this new landscape, political stability trumps all other considerations. Thus, officials at all levels do not want to risk their career by making difficult decisions and subsequently taking on responsibility should things go wrong. Instead, stability maintenance and rigid preservation of the CCP’s legitimacy is the top priority at every level of government. The Wuhan government’s hyper-concentration on constructing the positive image of stability caused local officials to overlook the well-being of citizens by covering up vital information during the initial stage of the outbreak. Therefore, emphasizing stability maintenance at the expense of much-needed information sharing during the initial stage of the outbreak significantly exacerbated the subsequent COVID-19 crisis in China.
In addition to buck passing, the real toll of COVID-19 in China could have been underestimated. For example, mobile phone and landline usages in China declined by 21 million and 840,000 respectively over the past two months. While such decreases could be due to China’s poor economic performance during the outbreak, they should raise alarm. Using data from Wuhan’s crematoriums, Radio Free Asia (RFA) argues that Wuhan’s death toll alone could possibly be as high as 46,800 rather than Beijing’s official country-wide death toll of less than 3,400. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reported that China’s Central Government is just as blinded as the rest of the world since mid-level bureaucrats in Wuhan and elsewhere in China have been lying about the country’s infection rates, testing and death counts, fearful that if they report numbers that are too high they will be punished, lose their jobs, or worse.
With Beijing now claiming victory over its own COVID-19 epidemic and economic recovery now being the main political agenda, local and mid-level officials could again be incentivized to suppress politically inconvenient information relating to potential renewed outbreaks in order to maintain stability. Since pandemics could reappear in waves, the successful suppression of the first wave in China does not guarantee that a second wave would not occur, so the last thing the public needs is a renewed effort by local governments to suppress information.
Major Powers Need to Cooperate to Combat COVID-19
Since the United States and China are now fully engaged in strategic competition, it is politically convenient for politicians in both countries to demonize the other side. In fact, Members of Congress have casted doubt on China’s official claim that the virus came from a wet market, and some even supported a debunked conspiracy theory arguing that COVID-19 is a Chinese biological weapon. Even President Trump calls COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus.” On the other side of the Pacific, rumors spread on Chinese social media that COVID-19 was a U.S.-engineered biological weapon deployed to slow down China’s rise, a view shared by a prominent Chinese diplomat. Additionally, the same rumor has been aired by a Russian state-run TV channel, which claimed that COVID-19 is both a biological weapon designed to contain China and a plot by American pharmaceutical companies. Nevertheless, an overwhelming number of medical professionals have concluded that COVID-19 originated in wildlife rather than weapons laboratories. Yet, it is also possible that the virus could have been mishandled and unintentionally leaked into a wet market, so solving the mysterious origin of COVID-19 should not be a blame game, but a chance for a multilateral investigation to prevent future epidemics.
Ultimately, epidemics are non-traditional security issues that transcend sovereign borders. In order to contain the spread of COVID-19, Washington, Seoul, Tokyo, Brussels, Beijing, and Tehran should temporarily put aside geopolitics and ideological animosities. This would mean top leaderships, philanthropists like Jack Ma and Bill Gates, militaries and emergency response departments from major powers could coordinate through international organizations like the United Nations, and allow for maximum transparency during such processes. Since the U.S. and China are now facing the same enemy, Washington need not concede its strategic interests and values in order to work with Beijing to jointly develop vaccines and roll back the virus. This would also mean that Beijing must be willing to coordinate with the U.S. Center for Disease and Control (CDC) by sharing its own data about the virus, which could be useful in containing the epidemic. In fact, during the height of the Cold War, Moscow and Washington jointly vaccinated the entire world against smallpox, so there is no excuse for Beijing and Washington to not cooperate given the urgency and increasing lethality of the ongoing epidemic.
For Beijing, the biggest lesson is that rigid control of information backfires. Beijing has a track record of covering-up inconvenient, but vital information, such as during the 2003 SARS epidemic. The whistleblower – a general in the People’s Liberation Army – remains under house arrest to this day. With regard to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, although Beijing’s subsequent responses have successfully contained the outbreak within China, wartime style mobilization – like the lockdown of Wuhan – remains a short-term solution, requires significant sacrifices in material wellbeing and livelihood by citizens, and is detrimental to the economy. In the long-run, the CCP leadership would be better off by gradually allowing the media, medical professionals, and mid-level officials more flexibility in responding to unexpected disasters. This is because the current system of information control – carried out directly in the name of President Xi – and prioritization of stability maintenance have disincentivized bureaucrats and professionals from speaking out and taking bold initiatives during critical breakout periods.
Thus, if the CCP leadership hopes to maintain its political legitimacy through more effective governance, they should consider rolling back the current censorship and security-maintenance apparatus, while giving the press and citizens more power to hold mid-level and local bureaucrats accountable. Forcing Wuhan residents to thank President Xi for frontline doctors’ achievements in rolling back COVID-19 will only weaken the Party’s credibility. Nonetheless, as Xi has repeatedly emphasized the need to “strengthen the guidance of public opinion,” we are more likely to see further tightening of China censorship system, and the Chinese people will bear the cost of that decision as long as Xi’s administration remains inflexible.
Wei (Josh) Luo is an M.A. in Asian Studies candidate at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He holds a B.A. in Diplomacy and World Affairs from Occidental College and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has worked in Mainland China and India, and has studied in Saint Petersburg, Russia and Hong Kong.
Qin (Maya) Mei is an M.A. in Asian Studies candidate at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. She holds a B.A. in Diplomacy and World Affairs from Occidental College. She has worked in Mainland China and the U.S. and has studied in Los Angeles and London.