Cynicism is prevalent but is trumped by the CCP’s patriotic narrative and the government’s performance in delivering on people’s expectations.
On 26 April 1986, the nuclear reactor in the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl began to melt down. True to form, the initial response of officials in the old Soviet Union was to cover up. Workers and scientists at the site in neighbouring regions bravely tried to understand what was happening and apply emergency procedures to control it. Tens of thousands were unwittingly being exposed to potentially fatal radioactive dust. Its spread across Western Europe was soon being detected.
The Kremlin reluctantly realised that it could no longer keep the disaster secret. Less than four years later, the all-powerful Soviet Union had gone. At the time of Chernobyl this had been unthinkable.
The Chernobyl disaster is often seen as a dramatic portent of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. In truth, regimes tend to go out with a whimper not a bang. Chernobyl was symptomatic of a Soviet Union that had already entered its protracted phase of terminal decline as the regime atrophied under economic stasis, inefficiency, corruption, cynicism, and plain incompetence on an epic scale. Gorbachev the reformer was too little, too late to save the system.
Covid-19 could become China’s symbolic Chernobyl, but at this stage it is too early into the course of the disease to say much with any confidence. Obviously, a lot will depend on its severity and longevity, and if this leads to economic paralysis in China.
The Chinese Government’s response, however, has sharply divided opinion within China, notwithstanding strenuous efforts to censor wider public discussion. Reaction against the secretive manner in which the Government first responded to Covid-19 continues to build momentum through social media.
The whistle-blower, Dr Li Wenliang, has become a rallying point for those calling for greater freedom of speech, and transparency and accountability from officials.
The Chinese Party-State’s response has been true to form. Cover-up, punish whistle-blowers, reassure that all is fine until the circumstances make that impossible to sustain. Then respond by mass mobilisation making it a sacred duty to prevail over the emergency. Defeating the virus has become a patriotic struggle.
This also serves to divert attention from the leadership’s mistakes. However, the pattern of response is alarmingly familiar, and many have died needlessly as a result. People have become deeply mistrustful of the State.
In the 1990s, it took years for officials to acknowledge and respond to a scandal of HIV-infected blood transfusions, mainly in Henan Province. The whistle-blower on that occasion, also a doctor, was hounded into exile in 2001 in the US.
In March 2003, SARS (a similar virus as COVID-19) saw the same pattern of coverup, denial and mass mobilisation that we see with COVID-19. An outraged public attacked the Government over the tardiness of the official response and dissembling, and victimising whistle blowers. Beijing Party officials involved in the coverup, as now with Wuhan officials, were forced to fall on their swords and accept responsibility.
SARS led for a time to serious public discussion about the need for government transparency, accountability, and media scrutiny. It occurred at the time of trend towards greater openness in China, and political and economic reform. The movement of rights lawyers was gaining momentum. Citizens increasingly felt they could defend their rights against the state.
Then in 2008, the Wenchuan earthquake hit Sichuan Province in May and, immediately after the Olympics concluded, the adulterated Sanlu Milk infant formula scandal that killed many babies, and had been concealed during the Olympics, hit the headlines. The Sanlu scandal followed the established pattern of cover up, denial, blame and persecute the victim, then Government retribution against the accused.
The Wenchuan earthquake was different for a while. For a period after SARS, high-level introspection was evident and an acceptance of greater openness. When the earthquake hit, Chinese and western journalists rushed to the scene. For some days, reporting felt objective and free.
But then it emerged that the biggest cohort of deaths was among school children who were in their afternoon classes. Attention focussed on the poor quality of buildings. Soon it was known the schools had been jerry built. Suspicion of local government corruption was being aired. So-called “tofu buildings” were blamed by grieving parents.
Again, the familiar pattern occurred of shutting down media reporting, replacing reporting with propaganda, punishing whistle blowers and victims. A narrative of heroic citizens and military efforts to serve the people soon smothered out all criticism. Another patriotic struggle, this time to rebuild Wenchuan in record time (which happened), was launched.
With COVID-19, the wider political trend for years in China has been for greater political control, propaganda, less transparency and the suppression of the “rights movement” which sought to enable citizens to exercise their constitutional rights against the state. A big difference this time, however, is that social media, which did not exist during previous disasters, has enabled far wider public discussion than ever before about the government’s behaviour, no matter how tightly controlled and how short the posts last.
Clearly, a great deal of public mistrust of the government exists. Equally, there is overwhelming support for the government’s narrative that this is a challenge that only the country united under the wise leadership of the Communist Party can confront and defeat.
The government again is controlling the narrative. It draws on patriotism and skilfully uses this to support the Communist Party’s leadership in times of crises. Foreign commentators generally fail to recognise that widespread support for the Party is real and widespread.
Xi Jinping is not under threat from without over his handling of the crisis. Internally, within the Party elite, others will be arguing that today China is too big, too diverse, too integrated in the international system, its people too wealthy and too international for the old instincts of secrecy, control and victimisation to serve the country’s interests.
In the opaque political system of China, no one outside can know how numerous or influential are such views. Probably the answer is not very. Moreover, the government’s extraordinary response of effectively shutting down the country seems to be working, at least the WHO thinks so.
China today is not the Soviet Union of 1986 when Chernobyl occurred. China is a highly successful, well-functioning economy that keeps delivering ever increasing material living standards to its citizens while obtaining respect and standing in the world. Cynicism is prevalent but is trumped by the CCP’s patriotic narrative and the government’s performance in delivering on people’s expectations.
Moreover, with its pre-modern, opaqueness at the level of elite politics, if President Xi faces political challenges, we will never know until after they have occurred.
Geoff Raby is a former Australian Ambassador to China.