The coronavirus outbreak that exploded three weeks ago in the central Chinese city of Wuhan has prompted the most severe Chinese government actions in three decades. Cities are closed down, transport links broken, and tens of millions of people effectively quarantined.
At a time when the Chinese Communist Party and the leadership claim supremacy over every aspect of Chinese life, when President Xi Jinping has been styled as the “chairman of everything,” will China’s essential pact between lack of personal freedom and the gaining of prosperity start to crack?
What we are up against is a society running headlong into the effects of the truest autocracy the world currently has: China. In little old New Zealand, freedom of expression is the first cornerstone of a successful society (although there are still plenty around who can remember our cities shut off and ringed by armed guard in the early 1950s when the Polio epidemic struck us).
Even though the Articles 35 and 41 of the Chinese Constitution read almost like the Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, violation of basic rights is a daily norm. People have been persuaded or forced to trade rights for fast economic development, based on the rubric of what is called “performance legitimacy.” But now, the general public is suffering an agonizing tragedy because critical information was suppressed and because doctors were silenced.
The outbreak will eventually be brought under control, but much of the world is going to respond in a few months with its patience truly running out with this incompetence. It’s already on track to kill more than Chernobyl.
Today, citizens across China are taking to social media, posting the anthem from the musical Les Misérables. “Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men?” the posts demand. For the last year many in Hong Kong – still one of the most important cities in China – have been yelling their lungs out. The Corona Virus is now looking like the force majeur cover the most authoritarian extremists in China needed to punish and corral all those who resist. For Hong Kong they threaten to bring out the guns. For the Uighur they corral them with steel. Germs just don’t care about either.
An authoritarian state tends to do really badly in cases of civil emergency by its nature: it can’t follow any of the basic guidelines such as communicate quickly and frankly with the public; it can’t establish and maintain trust; and it can’t keep up. Since it can’t do those things, citizens won’t be inclined to cooperate. Coercion as the alternative is the least efficient form of changing mass behavior.
So instead the Chinese government favored censorship over action in the critical first month, thus allowing the virus to take firm hold in Hubei, around the country, and now around the world. The subsequent draconian measures, while costly by every measure, are largely a high-profile exercise in shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Authoritarian governments can be widely tolerated by their citizens as long as the alternative seems worse and they deliver at least some of what they promise to a substantial proportion of the population. In the case of the CCP, those promises include security, stability, and steadily rising prosperity. That compact is believable only as far as the administration is perceived to be both relatively honest and effective.
It’s not doing well.
The epidemic is far from over, and its secondary effects, including the economic and diplomatic impacts, will continue to develop. Having locked down substantial parts of the country, Beijing now faces the dilemma of deciding at what point to take the risk of declaring victory and beginning to get the economy going again. The Chinese government will go into debt through stimulus borrowing, as will the corporations.
The month of March, in the stately calendar of China’s symbolic politics, should celebrate the ritual of the lianghui—the annual convening in Beijing of two key national political bodies. That seems unlikely as things stand, and even if it goes ahead, some hasty rewriting of the speeches will be required.
Xi Jinping decided to make himself Chief Executive of everything, well, for that he gets to carry the can for everything.
So how far can the Xi Jinping administration continue to stretch the system before it snaps?
Since early 2013, Xi has overseen a relentless campaign to remake China’s party-state to better position it to face domestic and international challenges, as well as to eventually realize a vision of a rich, powerful, and rejuvenated Chinese nation.
Xi may currently be leader for life, but guns, germs and steel are starting to unravel even this most complete of modern autocrats.