From the outside, China’s Communist Party appears powerful and effective. It has tightened its control over Chinese politics, culture, the economy and everyday life, projecting the image of a gradually unifying society.
The coronavirus outbreak has blown up that facade.
Staffers at the prestigious Union Hospital in Wuhan, the city at the center of the outbreak, have joined others around China in begging online for medical supplies. Videos show patients in Wuhan beseeching medical staff for treatment. Residents of Wuhan and its province, Hubei, are being chased off planes and ousted from hotels and villages.
Online critics are comparing current leaders unfavorably to past ones, even though the older generation had its own tarnished record on responding to emergencies. Some people have urged local party officials to kill themselves.
As cracks show in China’s veneer of stability, even some with ties to the party leadership are calling for those in power to shine light on divisions rather than papering them over. The crisis has shown that China remains riddled with vulnerabilities that no amount of censorship or strong-arming can hide.
“The local government’s tolerance level of different online voices is way too low,” wrote Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times newspaper, a nationalist, party-controlled outlet that fiercely defends Beijing from its critics, in a social media post.
Government agencies have weakened the checks-and-balances function of the Chinese news media, Mr. Hu wrote, citing the example of eight early whistle-blowers who were summoned for talks by the Wuhan police.
The coronavirus outbreak has already killed over 100 people and infected more than 4,000 in China, mostly in Wuhan and elsewhere in Hubei. For online critics of the government’s responses, which at times have been slow or seemingly random, the crisis has prompted a rethink of the grand trade-off with the party, in which the people have surrendered individual rights for the promise of stability and prosperity.
“The current system looks so vibrant yet it’s shattered completely by a governance crisis,” wrote one user on the social media site Weibo.
“We gave up our rights in exchange for protection,” the user wrote. “But what kind of protection is it? Where will our long-lasting political apathy lead us?”
The post was retweeted over 7,000 times and liked 27,000 times before it was deleted by censors.
Westerners can be easily awed by how quickly and forcefully the Chinese government can mobilize resources and build infrastructure. Even some international public health experts have said they were impressed with the speed and scale of China’s lockdown on more than a dozen cities, which has affected 56 million people. The Chinese propaganda machine has highlighted such capabilities as two new Wuhan coronavirus hospitals are built from scratch, to be completed in days.
This single-minded pursuit of efficiency masks deep problems. Propaganda videos and flashy new buildings don’t show the toll this relentless drive can take on people, society or the environment.
Many Chinese people are willing to go along. Partially, the state has taught them to think that way. But many are satisfied with the status quo because they believe that the party has kept their interests in mind.
The epidemic now threatens to change some of that thinking.
Officials in Wuhan initially downplayed the threat and censored information as the disease spread throughout the country and even internationally. The city and the province then abruptly imposed a lockdown on travel, even though millions had already left for China’s Lunar New Year holiday.
Local residents complained that restrictions later imposed on traffic made it difficult for people to get to work and seek medical assistance, perhaps hindering prevention efforts rather than helping them.
Wuhan’s medical system was so overwhelmed that videos of overworked medical workers having breakdowns and desperate patients pleading for help circulated widely online.
The situation was so dire that Zhang Ouya, a senior reporter at the state-run Hubei Daily, wrote that “Hubei must immediately replace its commanders” on his verified Weibo account. The post was soon deleted, but a screenshot circulated widely. In an official document leaked online, the newspaper apologized to Wuhan officials and promised that its staff would post only positive content.
For many people in China, the most unexpected revelation came when local hospitals ran out of supplies and had to ask for donations on social media, going around the Chinese bureaucracy. As the crisis expanded, even hospitals in Beijing and other provinces resorted to public appeals for face masks and protective medical gowns.
“I’ve always thought we have the most refined state-run system, which can pool and deploy resources at a moment’s notice,” wrote a Weibo user called Meng Chang, a former journalist in Beijing. But the reality was disappointing, he wrote: “Where is the omnipotent system?”
National leaders, meanwhile, look out of touch. As the outbreak became a national crisis, the front page of the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, last week extolled the leadership but didn’t mention Wuhan. “There’re no people in the People’s Daily,” one of my WeChat connections, an economist, messaged me.
China Central Television, the state broadcaster, featured a banquet held by the leadership to celebrate the country’s successes. On Friday night, the eve of the Lunar New Year, CCTV’s annual holiday broadcast worked in six minutes of praise for Wuhan’s medical workers between the skits and songs. Wuhan’s people went unmentioned.
“I was very sad when watching the Spring Festival gala last night,” a woman named Jiujiu told the podcast Gushi FM. “Wuhan has come to this, yet the whole nation still seemed full of great joy.”
Some within China’s institutions appear to be trying to fix the problems.
While Weibo has censored many posts about the epidemic, it appears to be leaving loopholes for its users to vent. Wang Gaofei, Weibo’s chief executive, posted research by scientists at the University of Washington that showed a correlation between greater news coverage and a reduction in infections.
But in a country where history is often rewritten to serve the party’s interests, the lessons of the past can be forgotten. Discussion of SARS, the outbreak that killed hundreds 17 years ago, has been muted. Even as many Chinese people quietly complain about current leaders, they wax nostalgic about the role that former President Hu Jintao played in the SARS epidemic, apparently forgetting that Beijing tried to cover up that outbreak for three months.
A video of a CCTV interview with Beijing’s then-mayor, Wang Qishan, who is now China’s vice president, was viewed over four million times in two hours before it was deleted. The comments were full of praises for his candid and confident answers and yearning for a strong leader like him.
“It’s not that this nation has a bad memory,” wrote one person who pointed out the irony. “It’s because those in power don’t like that you remember.”
The police in various parts of China have fined or detained over 40 people in the past few days for spreading “rumors,” many of which claimed that there were confirmed cases of the virus locally, according to a tally by a WeChat account based on media reports.
Wang Heyan, an investigative reporter for the magazine Caixin who has written about corruption cases involving top Chinese leaders, lamented on her WeChat timeline that she and her colleagues couldn’t get any medical workers to talk to them in Wuhan. Even after she promised them anonymity, Ms. Wang said, the workers feared reprisals.
“If all medical workers aren’t willing to take a little risk to speak the truth and the media can’t report the truth, in the end everyone, including the doctors, will be victims,” she wrote.
A reporter from Beijing News also complained on social media that even though he was in the epicenter of the epidemic, he couldn’t write a single word about what he had learned.
Many Chinese still have strong belief in the power of the central government. After Premier Li Keqiang visited Wuhan on Monday, a week after the epidemic became a full-blown crisis, a retiree told my colleague Chris Buckley, “In China, if a leader visits, that shows that all the resources of the government can be mobilized.”
Li Haipeng, a former journalist, predicted as early as last week that eventually the state would come to Wuhan’s rescue.
“The state will be interpreted, proved and trusted as the only savior,” he wrote on Weibo. “All our stories are the same: They start with the failure of the state and end with its victory.”
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