How coronavirus exposes the Chinese state

Published by The i paper (10th February, 2020)

Among those attending the global elite’s annual get together in Davos last month was a Singaporean professor and former president of the United Nations Security Council called Kishore Mahbubani. He was pushing his new book called Has China Won?, an analysis of Beijing’s threat to the United States. It claims that China will win their superpower tussle since it is, supposedly, some kind of noble meritocracy rather than a nasty plutocracy, patiently advancing while placing an emphasis not on freedom, like America, but on freedom from chaos.

China’s rise has been rapid and impressive. But it has not yet won the fight for planetary supremacy and has been stumbling recently in its great march forward. Its economy has slowed, its population is ageing fast – intensified by vile restrictions on the basic human right to have children – and it has become embroiled in a trade war with Washington. Beijing’s barbaric repression of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang sparked increasingly fierce international outcry just as it faced serious challenges to its authority in both Hong Kong and Taiwan and there was growing concern over its abuse of technological advances.

Now comes a struggle to contain the outbreak of coronavirus, which has convulsed the country with factories closed, flights grounded and people told to stay at home. This potential pandemic exposes the flaws in China’s dictatorial system and its corrosive lack of freedom – and no-one displays this better than a local doctor who became a dissident for doing his duty.

Li Wenliang was an obscure ophthalmologist in Wuhan who warned his students about hygiene precautions after learning of seven cases of a virus from a local fruit and seafood market. When these messages were shared and went viral, he was summoned to a police station and forced to sign a statement denouncing his ‘misdemeanour’ in spreading false rumours.

As fears grew over the virus and word spread about how the authorities behaved towards him, Li became a hero in his homeland. It took the government three more weeks to acknowledge the risks, ordering the lockdown in Wuhan. “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier it would have been a lot better,” said Li. “There should be more openness and transparency.”

Any public health expert would agree with his words. Yet such ideas are deemed incendiary by the country’s Communist Party chiefs, even if the consequences are fatal to some fellow citizens. There is nothing new about Chinese whistleblowers being hounded for exposing malfeasance. One of the most infamous cases involved two more doctors, a pair of brave women who defied the authorities more than two decades ago to expose an Aids epidemic in a poor rural province, only to be forced into exile.

Since Xi Jinping  became president in 2013 the party has ratcheted up control of China’s 1.4 billion citizens. There have been new laws to stop the spreading of ‘rumours’ – whether true or not – and increased use of technology to stifle free speech. Last week, Li joined the lengthening list of coronavirus fatalities. He was 34 years old and about to become a father for the second time.

The government, panicked by mounting public backlash, mishandled news of his death. It has tried to control the narrative, sending 300 officials to Wuhan to push propaganda while frantically deleting online criticism and detaining activists. Their efforts were overwhelmed as millions of posts flooded social media paying tribute to the doctor, accusing the state of concealing information, posting videos of corpses in the streets and demanding freedom of speech. Even some state officials joined the online insurgency. Once again we see that even the thickest walls cannot stem the flow of information in a digital age.

The death of this ‘regular guy’ made to apologise for doing the right thing has shaken the mighty Chinese state. He has been compared by analysts to that heroic lone figure who stood before a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 protests. China’s highest court said he and other whistleblowing medics should not have been punished in a rare public rebuke for the authorities.

The government, caught off guard, responded to the public outpouring of anger by sending a team to investigate ‘issues related to Dr Li that were reported by the public.’ Even Global Times, a slavish pro-government tabloid, paid a tribute to Li.

Xi, the most dominant leader of China since Mao Zedong, has vowed the “devil virus” will be beaten – but the state media, which routinely hails his guidance of the nation as it builds his cult of personality, has stopped saying the president was personally directing the battle. This demonstrates the threat the virus poses to his authority as a public health panic turns into profound political crisis. For these tumultuous events show again – like the Chernobyl nuclear disaster – the risks of a centralised and overbearing state that permits no dissent.

Since Xi took power there has been a crackdown on efforts to probe public officials. As he himself has said, the outbreak is “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance”. The flip side of such control is a new hospital, built in ten days to treat coronavirus. Yet as this virus spreads around the world, it reminds us how globalisation is an irresistible force for all the hollow talk of nationalists. The impact is felt by British luxury brands, European tourism and Japanese car makers, showing the intertwined nature of our modern world.

Above all, coronavirus exposes an inherent weakness of the Chinese model of autocracy, with its offer of prosperity and freedom from chaos in return for rigid control of speech and political space. No doubt some officials will be blamed for failure, promises will be made of reform and Xi will make every effort to strengthen his grip. But as Li told a Chinese magazine shortly before his death: “A healthy society should not only have one kind of voice.”

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