COVID-19 & China: Crisis to opportunity

Security personnel wearing face masks to contain the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) walk along a street outside Forbidden City in Beijing, China. (REUTERS Photo)

Three events last week underscore how the narrative has shifted around China’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. The first of these is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Wuhan, which coincided with the country’s health authorities confirming that the outbreak had peaked there. Second, the World Health Organisation’s declaration of Covid-19 as a pandemic for which the epicentre had shifted to Europe. And third, the Donald Trump administration’s initial ham-handed response to the outbreak in the US.

In late January, as the Chinese government locked cities down, the common refrain was about the draconian nature of the response and that the outbreak revealed the underlying weaknesses of China’s authoritarian system. Discussing the early failures of local authorities in Hubei and the central leadership in taking charge of the crisis, Minxin Pei went as far as labelling coronavirus as a “disease of Chinese autocracy.” Another strand of thought was that the outbreak was a sign of the shifting of the mandate of heaven, i.e., a major challenge that would fundamentally undermine the Communist Party and Xi Jinping’s rule. This argument was buttressed by the fact that Xi had designated Premier Li Keqiang as the public face of the government’s efforts.

But as the situation evolved, the Chinese President assumed centre stage, while local officials in Hubei picked up the blame. A whole host of officials in charge of Wuhan and Hubei, including the city and provincial party chiefs, were replaced in the first half of February. Then on February 15, the Communist Party’s journal Qiushi reprinted the text of a speech that Xi gave to China’s top leaders on February 3. The altered text informed that the Chinese President was aware of the outbreak as of January 7 and had instructed the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s top leadership council, to act in order to control its spread.

These shifts in February were early signs of political confidence, which clearly has grown, as evident from Xi’s visit to Wuhan. What accompanied the visit were dwindling numbers of new cases, which are now largely imported cases. In addition, the Party-State propaganda arms, which had been on the defensive over the past two months over travel bans and evacuations by other countries, are now extolling the virtues of the Chinese system and projecting China’s management of the outbreak as a model for other countries.

This comes as the WHO has declared Europe as the new epicentre of the pandemic and recommended social distancing measures. While Italy had already initiated lockdowns, other countries in Europe are gradually following suit by announcing school closures and hinting at broader shutdowns in the days and weeks to come. Given this context, the narrative from Chinese officials and media has shifted. At one level, the focus is on how China can aid other countries. For instance, Xinhua, China’s official news agency, has encapsulated China’s experience with the outbreak within the acronym PROTECT. This implies: “Party leadership, ‘renmin’ for the people, openness and transparency, technology and science, early treatment, cooperation with the international community, and targeted and agile approach.”

In addition, Chinese officials and media are highlighting the experiential and material support that China is extending to other countries, particularly Italy. In fact, Xi this week spoke to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, offering to share China’s “experience with other countries, carry out joint research and development on drugs and vaccines, and offer as much assistance as it can to countries where the disease is spreading.”

The propaganda blitz, however, isn’t devoid of a sharp edge, such as Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijian’s promotion of conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus and tabloid Global Times’ threats to block sales of masks to the US in response to American restrictions on Huawei.

Irrespective, the effort from Beijing is largely aimed at two primary objectives. The first is to gloss over the systemic failures and lack of transparency that led to the outbreak while emphasising that the Communist Party’s governance system enabled a robust response. The second is to project China as a responsible international actor that is contributing to the global fight against the pandemic.

In this effort, the third event mentioned above, i.e., Donald Trump’s chaotic management of the spread of the disease in the US, is an asset for Beijing. The US President’s early responses were bumbling, flippant and motivated by narrow domestic political considerations. Trump went from being completely dismissive to eventually declaring a Europe travel ban, a national emergency and a potentially collaborative approach with G7 countries. It’s still early days, but if the US leadership continues to stumble in its efforts to contain the spread of the disease domestically and mismanages ties with international partners, it will work to Beijing’s advantage. In such a scenario, expect the Communist Party to further double down on the effectiveness of its governance system to contain unrest at home and reshape global norms.

(The writer is Fellow-China Studies, Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru)