Wuhan, Dissent, and Xi’s Lost Opportunity

China’s immediate reaction to the emergence of the virus at the end of 2019, when the alarm was sounded by doctors in Wuhan, was to clamp down on healthcare workers on the grounds that they were spreading fake rumors. Professor Regina Llamas asks how this continued.

China’s immediate reaction to the emergence of the virus at the end of 2019, when the alarm was sounded by doctors in Wuhan, was to clamp down on healthcare workers on the grounds that they were spreading fake rumors. Dr. Li Wenliang (1986-2020) was among a small number of doctors in Wuhan to express concern when he informed a group of old medical school classmates that a number of people from a local seafood market were exhibiting SARS-like symptoms. His message went viral and Li was soon after brought into a police station and reprimanded for disrupting social order. Government censors were soon put to work and the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission maintained that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission and no infection of healthcare workers. In Wuhan, a government-organized pot-luck dinner with 40,000 families proceeded as scheduled. But as the numbers of infections grew, the central government and eventually the supreme court weighed in.

In the following weeks, as the virus spread, both Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang and Community Party of China Chief Ma Guoqiang resigned in order to appease public indignation and soak up the blame. However, in an interview after he resigned, Zhou pointed out that while Wuhan’s procedures may have been below standard, the provincial government must have authorization from the central government in order to disclose or declare an epidemic, essentially arguing that his hands had been tied.

By the end of December 2019, China had informed the World Health Organization of the gravity of the situation. Finally, on January 23rd, with the virus spreading exponentially, the Central Government stepped in and put Wuhan on lockdown. Unfortunately, before lockdown was declared, roughly five million people had fled the city since the early days of the virus. By the end of January, the virus had not only spread to other cities in China but other parts of the world.

When Dr. Li, aged 34, lost his life to the virus in early February, the harshest criticism of the Chinese government came from within China. Chinese social media went into a frenzy, calling on the Wuhan government to formally apologize to Dr. Li and his family. After this initial outburst of protest, which included demands for freedom of speech, the topic was scrubbed from social media by official censors.

The following month, on March 11th, with cases and deaths rising around the world – most notably at this point in Italy, Iran, and Spain – the WHO declared the coronavirus a pandemic.

While Xi Jinping remains a strong leader, his reputation has suffered both inside and out of China. In addition to the caustic criticism by netizens following the death of Dr. Li, the most strident personal critique of Xi has come from former real estate tycoon and longtime Communist Party member Ren Zhiqiang (b.1951). Ren, the son of former Vice Minister of Commerce Ren Quansheng (d.2007), has been a frequent critic of the government, arguing that China has abandoned the very reforms that pulled it out of poverty and established it as a dominant global economic power. Ren posted most of these reflections on Weibo, where he has more than 37 million followers.  When Ren criticized Xi for stating, much like Mao had in Yan’an, that the media must serve the party, Ren’s account was subsequently shut down.

This time, however, the government did not settle for mere censorship. In mid-March Ren, his son, and an associate disappeared. It eventually emerged that Ren was taken into custody by the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).

In one of Ren’s last messages [1],posted in February and widely shared by his friends and followers, he reiterated that the media should not serve the party, but instead serve the people and report the truth on the ground, or else lives will be lost. Though Ren does not mention Xi by name, he dissects Xi’s teleconference speech to 170,000 cadres and questions the government’s clampdown and general cover-up in the early days of Covid-19. He likewise pointed out that, when the government finally deemed the problem serious enough to bring the country to a halt, the media launched a full-time propaganda campaign to promote the party’s achievements, with a general message of affirmation of the party’s decisions and President Xi’s pivotal role in the process.

The core of Ren’s critique focuses on how Xi did not take responsibility for the failures of the party, but forced local cadres to take the blame. Even Mao, Ren argues, acknowledged his mistakes during the Great Leap Forward, when millions of peasants died due to government mismanagement. If the government had promptly done what was required of it, Ren argues, China and the rest of the world would not be in the state it is now. Everything done later, Ren insists, was just a cover-up.

In late January, the WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus commended China for its handling of the outbreak and for its openness to sharing information. But after the virus landed in Iran, Italy, and Spain, and the virulence of its contagion became painfully clear, there was renewed scrutiny of the numbers coming out of China, and the Director General’s praise of China has likewise been questioned.

As China’s infection rate drops, the government has begun to send doctors and medical supplies abroad. This is an attempt to increase its soft power and to become, in effect, the world leader in the global response to COVID-19. The propaganda machine is, once again, in full sail, rescripting the narrative and turning a national/world disaster into a  victory for China. The message that China would like to convey is that, with its strong central government and control over the media and internet, it has the flexibility and power to respond quickly and vigorously to a virus outbreak, thus saving tens of thousands of lives in contrast to governments in Europe and America that are rife with political dissent and a critical media.

Even if we accept the theoretical possibility that free press and open discourse could be exchanged in order to save lives during a pandemic, it is not yet clear if China has, in fact, handled the virus better than others. We did not need the CIA to tell us that China, with its penchant for secrecy and fear of negative numbers, may not be as transparent with its information as the WHO Director General initially claimed. The lack of clarity is endemic (local officials fear repercussions if they report an increase in infections and deaths), and this inevitably breeds mistrust.

President Xi had an incredible opportunity to honestly and democratically change the way China operates and how it is perceived by the world. If Xi had been candid and used this difficult situation as an opportunity to show that China can be truthful, transparent, generous, and responsible, the world would have certainly accepted this gesture of leadership. Instead, the response of the Chinese administration has only succeeded in exposing the limitations of Xi’s global vision.


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