A pandemic would spread quickly, overwhelming China’s healthcare system, causing a breakdown in social order. Then the old chaos of the past will come again. The mighty CCP of today might suddenly look a weak and vulnerable thing.
~Kerry Brown, 2019 1
Earlier this month, Xi Jinping was exposed to the sharpest critique that any mainlander has dared to make since China’s president-for-life first took power. Xi was blamed for the coronavirus epidemic in the widely shared essay “Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear.” True to his subtitle, the author eschewed anonymity. Xu Zhangrun is a law professor at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University. After attacking China’s dictatorial system in a series of articles published in 2018, Xu was demoted and banned from teaching, writing, and publishing. Undeterred, he adopted an even sharper tone in his latest piece.
The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the reality of politics under the Communist Party, he says: “the fragile and vacuous heart of the jittering edifice of state… a storied bureaucratic apparatus… [that] repeatedly hid or misrepresented the facts.” And who is responsible for this jittering edifice, this storied apparatus? “The Axelrod and the cabal that surrounds him”—a lyrical reference to Xi Jinping and the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee. The president is condemned throughout the essay as “self-indulgent… overweening… clueless.” Dispensing with caution altogether, and realising that this may be the last piece he will ever write, Xu Zhangrun goes on to call for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and the right to vote in open elections.
It would be hard to argue with Xu’s rebuke. As of this writing, the epidemic’s death toll is still rising, and many of these deaths can ultimately be traced to the paranoid rigidity of the Xi Jinping administration. By late December 2019, doctors in Wuhan were already sounding the alarm over cases of what appeared to them to be SARS. Instead of listening to their warnings, the authorities summoned eight of these doctors for a dressing-down. They were warned of the punishments they could face for “rumour-mongering.” News of their detention was broadcast to tens of millions: a clear message to anyone else who might have been thinking about discussing viruses in public.
The Party’s leaders actually knew enough to be worried by this point—they alerted the World Health Organisation on December 31st—and yet still they hid the truth from the public. This neurotic obsession with secrecy has certainly cost lives. If the medical community had been informed of the outbreak back in December, hospitals could have stockpiled the necessary supplies. But now there are drastic shortages, and patients are dying in hallways and waiting rooms.
Even the critics of authoritarian dictatorship will usually agree that the system beats democracy for sheer efficiency, but the coronavirus debacle has turned that old wisdom on its head. Where we might have expected cold and methodical governance, we have found dithering bureaucrats, unable to take a step in any direction, paralysed by what Xu Zhangrun calls “systemic impotence.” Weeks went by and citizens swarmed in and out of Wuhan, picking up the virus and transporting it to the far corners of the country. Local government officials stayed quiet, wary of the heavy hand of Xi Jinping. On January 23rd, a citywide quarantine was finally announced, but eight long hours passed before it was enacted—time enough for a million or more to flee the city.
The Wuhan lockdown was repeated in other parts of the country (including significant restrictions in the southern megacity of Guangzhou), and some observers praised the speed with which new hospitals were constructed from scratch. These very visible displays of its power aside, the Party has moved far too slowly at every stage of the crisis. Diagnostic testing required samples to be sent all the way to a laboratory in Beijing, and this delayed the distribution of testing kits to many of the hospitals in Wuhan. Even when testing kits were available, patients still found themselves trapped in a Kafka-esque web of bureaucracy. According to Reuters, the tests have been refused to people who fail to make it through a complex reporting system involving hospital authorities, district authorities, city health authorities, and disease control officials.
None of this should come as a surprise. The cliché about the efficiency of authoritarian systems was always, on closer analysis, something of a low-resolution image. In the old days of the Soviet Union, speedy industrial growth obscured the reality of a fragile system largely devoid of autonomous decision making. During the 1920s, the Communist Party’s state planning committee Gosplan was established with the impressive-sounding mission of creating a series of five-year plans to govern the economy. But over the next 70 years, the vast majority of these plans were radically revised and rewritten, or more frequently ignored altogether in favour of Joseph Stalin’s arbitrary dictates. Indeed, Gosplan actively tried to avoid making decisions at all, because committee members knew Stalin would have them shot and replaced if their ideas produced unwelcome results.2 In the end, fear saps the efficiency of all authoritarian regimes, and the Chinese Communist Party is no exception.
Li Wenliang has emerged as the most vivid symbol of the Party’s latest failure. Li was one of the Wuhan doctors disgraced for discussing the coronavirus on social media. A few days after his police warning, he contracted the virus himself, and on February 6th he died. It was during the period of Li’s short illness that the Party apparently realised its error and decided to absolve the doctors, but still the central government would accept no blame for the tragedy. Instead, the Supreme Court (which is controlled by the CCP) scolded the local government in Wuhan—an unusual move, no doubt designed to create a scapegoat for surging public anger. The truth is that the city’s officials had been faced with an impossible job. They obediently followed orders, and now they will be punished for it.
The frustration that always simmers beneath the surface of modern Chinese society has been bubbling up in recent weeks. “We are not dumbasses, we are not brainwashed,” said one anonymous Wuhan blogger. “We all fucking know what this country really is. We just have no ways, no power—our bodies are made of flesh and blood. We can’t beat full metal jackets and tanks.”
Li Wenliang has risen to the status of national hero for these dissenters, and several academics (including Xu Zhangrun) have signed an open letter calling on the government to issue a posthumous apology to Li. Now the Party’s leaders are panicking just as much as their hapless underlings in the Wuhan government. They have forcibly quarantined the citizen journalist Chen Qiushi as punishment for reporting on the chaos inside the city’s hospitals. Users on the social networking site Douban have been ordered to stop posting the lyrics to the Chinese national anthem, because the line “Rise, people who do not wish to be slaves” has been recategorised as radical content—an extraordinary move for a nationalistic regime, and a hint at how desperate things must be back in the Party headquarters at Zhongnanhai.
The economic impact of Xi Jinping’s mistakes will be considerable. It was only a few weeks ago that Party chiefs forecast 7.5 percent GDP growth this year for Wuhan’s home province of Hubei. Needless to say, this target is no longer feasible. Share prices fell by 10 percent in the fortnight following the Wuhan quarantine. Supply chains have been disrupted, factories remain closed, and widespread panic has almost erased business for hotels and restaurants throughout the country. J. P. Morgan economists have estimated that the epidemic would reduce annualised global gross domestic product growth by 0.3 percentage points in the first quarter, but now they think this figure will be much higher.
Perhaps the Party will contain this crisis. But the coronavirus embarrassment has exposed serious flaws in the system, and these flaws will eventually prove the Party’s undoing. To understand why, we need to evoke the concept of the Mandate of Heaven—the ancient dynastic belief in divine justification for the emperor’s rule. Throughout the long empires of the past, any large-scale failure (or even natural disaster) demonstrated the loss of Heaven’s favour, giving the people the right to rebel against their now-illegitimate leaders.
China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping sowed the seeds of the next rebellion when he embarked on his course of economic modernisation back in the late 1970s and 1980s. There can be no doubt that this course was vital, transforming China from the crippled and impoverished sick man of Asia into the rising behemoth of modern times. But it also signalled the beginning of the end for the current dynasty. The Communist Party had embraced a form of state capitalism even though it clung to the old authoritarianism—a system fatally undermined by the kind of inefficiencies that we’ve seen in recent weeks. This created an imbalance, and while observers have spent 40 years waiting for the balance to be redressed by top-down democratic reform, the failure of their predictions does not mean that the imbalance can be maintained forever.
Chinese citizens frequently refer to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs when explaining the Party’s failure to carry out political modernisation. Maslow was a 20th-century American psychologist best known for his theory that we need to satisfy basic physiological needs before we can move on to more abstract, “higher” needs, such as self-actualisation. This questionable theory has proven very useful for the Chinese Communist Party. We need to get rich first, the government tells the people. When our fundamental material needs have been taken care of, then we can start worrying about abstract ideas like human rights.
But the truth is that the Party has no intention of fulfilling those more “advanced” needs, nor will it ever need to, just so long as it can keep using the indefinite delay tactic of Maslovian theory. How rich is rich enough? Who can say? It will always be possible to convince the public they are not yet secure, no matter how wealthy. This arrangement works like an unwritten, unspoken contract. The people implicitly agree to overlook their lack of political and civil rights, while the Party agrees to make the people rich. Wealth creation has become the only thing that matters. And here, finally, we see the great vulnerability of the Chinese Communist Party. In the event of a major economic crisis and the subsequent breaking of the contract—a scenario made all the more likely by the flaws inherent to an authoritarian system—the authorities will lose the Mandate of Heaven.
The CCP is well versed in the dynamics of dynastic rule. Back in 2014, Vice President Li Yuanchao stated bluntly that if the Communist Party could not continue to improve people’s standard of living, then it would fall from power.3 The authorities have spent decades attempting to get round the problem by indoctrinating citizens with the idea that there is no distinction between Party and people. They hoped this would make uprising literally unthinkable. But a concept like the Mandate of Heaven runs far deeper in Chinese culture than anything so historically recent as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Has the Party really managed to educate the concept out of people? Is it possible for politics to reroute culture? Maybe, maybe not. Cultures are dynamic and ever-changing, but the influence of politics on these changes remains poorly understood. The question will be put to the test when the Chinese economy collapses. On that day, Xi Jinping will find out if some of the old ways are still breathing beneath the rubble of communism.
1 Kerry Brown – CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping (I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2019), pp. 223-4
2 Daron Acemoğlu & James A. Robinson – Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (Profile Books Ltd., London, 2013 edition, orig. 2012), pp. 128-9
3 Brown, op. cit., pp. 213-4
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