(Xinhua/Zhang Yuwei)

Opinion – Coronavirus Politics in China

After Premier Li Keqiang led a leading group to contain the outbreak of Coronavirus in China, it remains to be seen whether the Chinese government at both the central and provincial levels can contain the rapidly spreading virus in the coming months. If not, a governing crisis would perhaps emerge.

First and foremost, Premier Li’s leading group met on January 31 and February 2 to take concrete measures to contain the Coronavirus, including the mobilization of other provinces and cities to assist Wuhan city and Hubei province, the provision of more logistical supplies such as masks and medical equipment, the arrangement of the working hours of civil servants and cadres in various public utilities, the avoidance of holding mass events, the procedural arrangements for peasants, the adequate supplies of daily necessities such as water and electricity, and the protection of logistics and transport of food and vegetables to markets.

Clearly, the central government in Beijing has been providing the necessary leadership to oversee the entire campaign to terminate the spread of the disease and to minimize the inevitable disruption to the operation of the society and economy.

Second, the central government sent supervision teams to various localities in the Hubei province to dig out those officials and cadres who fail to perform and to tackle the crisis effectively. A health official in Huangguang city, Tang Zhihung, was removed from office as she failed to answer the supervision team’s question on the number of infected patients on January 25.

Some other local officials and cadres who were seen as inefficient and incompetent were also removed, including those working in Hubei, Shantung, Hunan, Anhui, Zhejiang, Henan, Hebei and Shanxi. A Chinese-style of accountability system can be seen. From the perspective of central-local relations, Beijing is clearly unhappy with the performance of many local officials in containing the spread of the Coronavirus.

Third, there has been an unprecedented degree of freedom of expression in the mainland social media. Some netizens openly criticized the leaders of the Hubei province and Wuhan city, saying that their responses to the crisis were slow and sluggish. Some of them even publicly asserted that the provincial leaders in Hubei were negligent and should be held accountable and removed.

A few netizens who defended the Hubei leadership quickly attracted opposing and negative comments from other readers. Other netizens criticized the Red Cross for failing to distribute the necessary logistical supplies to those hospitals and front-line doctors and nurses who needed urgent support.

They claimed that the Red Cross distributed logistical supplies to not only hospitals that did not need urgent support, but also top-level government officials in the province.

A wave of public criticisms could be seen in the social media, although there were some attempts at controlling them quickly. Some messages, reports and comments posted by critical netizens were later deleted. Some were warned that if they kept sending news on the “Wuhan virus” to their friends, the whole circle of apps would be deleted.

Fourth, although the central government has the directive of containing the Coronavirus, the local authorities have the discretion of deciding who are the citizens spreading “rumours” and “false news.” In late December 2019, eight doctors in Wuhan who posted messages on the deadly virus were reportedly arrested by the local police. After the complaints from netizens, who revealed the names of these doctors, the local police backed down, especially after a judicial official posted a commentary.

The politics of Coronavirus in China were seen in the form of a political tug-of-war between some netizens, who fight for openness and transparency, and the local police, who tend to see whistle-blowers as spreading “false news.” In fact, the central government’s directive on January 20, as stressed by President Xi Jinping, was that the local authorities must not cover up the developments of the Coronavirus.

Interestingly, some local authorities appear to be preoccupied with “false news” and their good image rather than tolerating news that accurately reflect the real development of the Coronavirus. In Fujian province, some citizens clashed with the local police who were carrying out the order of a lockdown. Police-citizen conflicts may erupt at the local level due to the need to implement the central directive of containing the Coronavirus effectively.

Fifth, the central government has mobilized the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to help Wuhan contain the disease. On the morning of February 2, 795 PLA officers were sent by eight transport planes from Shenyang, Lanzhou, Guangzhou and Nanjing to assist the medical staff members of Hubei province. They went to the province together with 58 tons of logistical supplies.

On February 3, the PLA mobilized 1,400 medical staff to prepare the work at a new makeshift hospital that would accommodate all the infected patients. Among the 1,400 staff members, 950 of them came from the logistical branch and 450 from the three universities of the army, the navy and the air force.

The Military Science Academy sent 15 experts to direct the leadership work of the new hospital. All these deployments were approved by President Xi, who is the Chairman of the Central Military Commission. On January 29, he directed the PLA to shoulder the responsibility of combating the Coronavirus.

In fact, on January 24, the first batch of 450 PLA officers had already been sent to Wuhan from Chongqing. Obviously, the central government regards the Coronavirus as a national security issue that necessitates the immediate mobilization and deployment of the PLA. Some overseas commentators went so far as to comment that the PLA were sent to not just contain the virus but also stabilize the society of Hubei province.

Sixth, there were rumours in the overseas Chinese media, saying that the Chinese leadership had a debate over whether the National People’s Congress (NPC) meeting in March should be held. Supporters of President Xi, according to the rumours, argued that holding the annual NPC meeting would show to the country and the world that China would be able to cope with the Coronavirus with strength.

But supporters of Premier Li contended that the NPC meeting should perhaps be postponed partly because of the urgency of fighting the spread of the disease, and also partly because of the likelihood that some high-ranking local officials might be infected with the Coronavirus.

It remains to be seen whether the NPC meeting would be held. If it is to be held, whether the scale of the meeting would be reduced to avoid unnecessary infections among high-ranking officials and NPC members.

Last but not the least, it remains to be seen whether the outbreak and containment of the Coronavirus would bring about a governing crisis in mainland China. If the disease continues to spread to other provinces and cities, the performance legitimacy of the Chinese government would be likely questioned by some citizens and critics.

Indeed, if the disease can be contained, the legitimacy crisis of the mainland government would be consolidated, as with the case of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that led to the prompt governmental response, full-scale mobilization, maximal efforts at rescue, and smooth reconstruction process. However, the Coronavirus is of different type of crisis; it appears to be more widespread, more prolonged and more delegitimizing than the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008.

A long process of dealing with the Coronavirus would undermine the economic performance of China, directly or indirectly triggering opinion differences and possible policy disputes at the top leadership. If opinion differences and policy disputes may turn into a factional struggle, the Coronavirus politics would then have destabilizing impacts on the ruling party in the long run.

In conclusion, the politics of Coronavirus in China remains to be observed. The ways in which the central government is containing the virus are fast, but the provinces and local cities have their discretion to implement the central directives. It remains to be seen how the various provinces and cities can and will contain the Coronavirus without implementation gaps.

If implementation gaps appear, they would likely trigger internal opinion differences, policy debates and even factional struggle among the central and provincial leadership. Coronavirus is lethal to not only ordinary citizens, but its politics would likely be delegitimizing and destabilizing to the mainland Chinese political development.

MNA Political commentator