MARK BEESON. What’s at stake in the Coronavirus crisis?

Feb 28, 2020

The Coronavirus is causing a political crisis as well as the more obvious medical variety. Some governments may not recover.

Spare a thought for Xi Jinping. Just when it looked as if he’d cemented his place at the top, along comes a crisis that threatens to upend him.

The big problem with centralising power and becoming ‘chairman of everything’ is that when things go wrong there’s really no one else to blame. Not that this has stopped him or the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party from trying, of course. Responsibility for the Coronavirus epidemic has been shifted to local officials in Wuhan, but this has not stopped an emerging crisis of confidence in China’s leaders from gaining momentum on social media.

Whatever else the present health scare is doing it’s shining a powerful light on comparative public policy. There’s nothing like the prospect of one’s untimely demise to focus the attention, of course, but what’s interesting is that the current crisis is rapidly becoming a test of the competence of governments everywhere.

Japan’s decision to firstly quarantine and then release the poor passengers on the Diamond Princess has been widely condemned. I’m no health expert, but I’m guessing that confining potentially sick people in cramped conditions and then releasing them without really knowing who is infected, who isn’t, or where they might be going, isn’t considered best practise in medical circles.

But at least there was a degree of transparency about Japanese efforts, even if the government may not have been thrilled about the resulting public commentary. In China things are rather different. From the outset the CCP has tried to control and limit the information flow. But even in China’s famously authoritarian and intrusive state, that’s easier said than done these days.

A constant stream of alarming footage has appeared on social media showing the overcrowded and under-resourced condition of Chinese hospitals. To be fair, any country might struggle to cope with the numbers of people affected by the virus, which might explain Japan’s decision to pass the infected parcel. In China’s case, however, this has not stopped the police, army and gangs of vigilantes from rounding up anyone who might be sick, often in fairly brutal ways. Unfortunately for them, much of this has been filmed.

Some people may be unsurprised by such strong arm tactics, but there are striking similarities with the behaviour of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. But given that – if the figures can be believed – the outbreak may be coming under control in China just as it looks like spreading everywhere else, will we have to contemplate similar measures in less authoritarian states?

What would happen if it takes hold in famously democratic and infamously unsanitary India, for example? The comparison between the two Asian giants is unlikely to flatter India, which despite lots of hype about its prospects, still lags behind China in many ways, including crowd control. The possible impact in Africa doesn’t bear thinking about, but has got to be on the cards, especially given the number of Chinese workers who routinely transit in and out of the region.

This is not a gratuitous racist slur, but simply a recognition that the country at the epicentre of the crisis will have the largest numbers of potential carriers – for the moment, at least. Knowing quite how to respond to China’s status as ground zero when it’s also your biggest trade partner is the key question for China’s neighbours. That includes us, of course.

Australia is especially exposed, dependent and subject to unfavourable commentary from the Chinese government and people. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Australia’s relationship with China has always been fairly instrumental and ambivalent. Our response to the current crisis will consequently be closely scrutinised, and not just in China.

The Morrison government’s ability to manage the diplomatic fallout of this crisis may be the least of their worries if the disease takes hold here. There have been so many stuff-ups of late, that one more might prove terminal, and not just for the government. If Australians start expiring in greater numbers from what many will, rightly or wrongly, see as an entirely avoidable problem, then there really could be a crisis, and not just of public policy.

How would Australians respond to Chinese-style round-ups and knocks on the door from public officials? Yes, it all sounds a bit unlikely and – well – foreign at this stage, but stranger things have happened even when things aren’t quite literally a matter of life and death.

There’s nothing like a real life stress test to see what governments and their respective leaders are made of. If Xi doesn’t get things under control, it really could be the end of the line as the tacit trade-off between limited individual freedom and improvements in the quality of life unravels. The stakes may not be quite so high for Morrison et al, but a mishandling of the crisis may inflict further long-term damage on the already tarnished reputation of democracy.

Mark Beeson is Professor of International Politics at the University of Western Australia. His latest book is Environmental Populism: The Politics of Survival; in the Anthropocene.


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