China Power | Politics | East Asia

Amid Coronavirus Outbreak, China’s Government Tightens Its Grip

The CCP’s response to the epidemic foreshadows a massive health-surveillance regime.

By Maximilian Mayer and Nicholas Ross Smith for
Amid Coronavirus Outbreak, China’s Government Tightens Its Grip

In this Jan. 4, 2020, file photo, a health surveillance officer monitors passengers arriving at the Hong Kong International airport in Hong Kong.

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

The ongoing coronavirus outbreak is a monumental challenge for the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in China. The deaths are mounting, draconian laws are affecting the daily lives of the entire population, and the economic costs are already staggering and growing day by day.

The political implications of the coronavirus outbreak have become particularly virulent in the wake of the death of the whistleblowing doctor, Li Wenliang. For many, the story of Dr. Li symbolizes the CCP’s culpability for the epidemic spinning out of control. His death led to significant public outrage online and, despite strict censorship, a noticeable backlash against the Party has begun, with various movements for freedom of speech and transparency emerging online.

Combine this with the numerous revelations of local cadres and the Chinese Red Cross mishandling the response to the epidemic and it is fair to say this is the most significant legitimacy crisis the CCP has faced since 1989.

Unsurprisingly, there has been much speculation – particularly in the Western mainstream media – that the erosion of public trust due to the coronavirus outbreak could be the “straw that breaks the camel’s back” with regards Xi Jinping’s leadership, with some event postulating the CCP might also crumble (if things seriously worsen).

The most prevalent analogy is that the CCP’s mishandling of the coronavirus is China’s “Chernobyl moment.” The Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster of 1986 is often cited as a key catalyst in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, as the mishandling of the aftermath exposed the corrupt and cacogenic character of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

However, the collapse of the Soviet Union was due to numerous factors – with economic and ideological decline chiefly important. And while the Chernobyl disaster galvanized popular opposition against the regime, the Soviet Union, by then, was already in the midst of an irreversible collapse.

While the CCP has experienced some ideological and economic decline in recent years, which has undoubtedly hurt its popular legitimacy, it is hardly in the shape the Soviet Union was in the mid-1980s. Furthermore, the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse was arguably hastened by its efforts to liberalize, a phenomenon known as the “Tocqueville effect.”

In this regard as well, China bears little resemblance to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Since Xi Jinping came to power there have been no perestroika or glasnost policies, but rather a clear effort to centralize power. Not only has Xi cleared his own way to serve as “president for life,” he has gone about diminishing what little civil liberties Chinese citizens had, with many fearing a totalitarian future ahead. The crackdown in Xinjiang presents a possible glimpse to the future.

Undoubtedly, the coronavirus epidemic is a blow to the legitimacy of Xi and the CCP. The public wants answers and an efficient crisis response. And it seems probable that heads will roll, possibly even some heavy hitters; indeed the process has already begun, with a leadership shakeup in Hubei province. But the CCP itself is far too resilient and embedded to be under threat, at this stage.

What is clear, however, is that China will not simply return to the status quo when the epidemic eventually dissipates. While some have optimistically postulated a potential for reform steps, necessary to repair the CCP’s reputation in the wake of the humanitarian crisis in Hubei province, it is more likely that this setback will accelerate China’s slide into an even more intrusive surveillance state.

Even if one accepts that the coronavirus epidemic is an existential threat to the CCP, it is also potentially a door to a new political reality. Health crises like the current one often elicit significant panic (even hysteria) among the masses. In response, governments can easily justify invasive and illiberal measures to combat a (partly embellished) threat to public safety. The problem is that some of these ad hoc measures often remain in perpetuity.

China’s initial response to the coronavirus outbreak exemplifies this logic. The CCP has mobilized existing elements of the socialist control system across the whole nation. It has taken work units (danwei), housing blocks, and street-level grid management (she qu) and combined them with the use of high-tech (drones, smart traffic systems, AI) and low-tech measures (roadblocks, sealing off of quarantined quarters).

This response demonstrates the startling surveillance power of the CCP. With the flick of a few switches, the government has been able to gather the daily data of practically every person in the country. They know exactly where everyone is, whether they have moved out of their apartment and compound, and even the temperature of their bodies.

Furthermore, the police fly drones above public places and neighborhoods to enforce the wearing of face masks and to pressure people to stay inside. Private cars that drive despite the official ban are detected by smart traffic systems and the drivers are suitably punished. A new app alerts users if they have come near a person suspected or confirmed to have the coronavirus infection.

In light of these measures, and while a new wave of censorship closes the window of relative openness, some Chinese netizens have joked that people in Wuhan (and increasingly other cities) are now experiencing what it is like to live in a re-education camp in Xinjiang.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Daily life in China is adapting to the changes quickly. Chinese citizens, holed up in their apartments, have used digital technologies to try and make sense of it all. Social media use, e-book downloads, music streaming, and online gaming have all seen massive spikes in recent days. Activities range from the serious to the absurd: viral videos of people finding ways to conquer their boredom have also become popular.

But social media also became instrumental for civil society activities tackling the epidemic, especially in the face of a failing health system. For instance, when supplies of face masks and protective coveralls in Wuhan hospitals were running low and official channels failed to deliver, desperate hospital staff appealed directly to the public via social media for supplies.

And, in turn, hundreds of ad hoc citizen networks have organized — often with the help of oversea Chinese – face masks, gloves, and respiratory machines needed by frontline health workers for patients with severe symptoms. Other volunteer groups began reading online posts of persons and families in Hubei province who are isolated in their homes and sickened from the virus in order to guide in professional assistance.

The abnormality of the virus prevention and control measures is slowly fading, however. Schools and universities are preparing to deliver remote classes and online streaming of education lessons. Meanwhile, companies are using live streaming and work at home arrangements to continue operations despite the quarantine. Drone fleets are being used to deliver “contactless” food and supplies.

Thus, in virus-stricken China, the heavy-handed traditional controls of the CCP have been combined with digital high-tech mechanisms in creative and novel ways. The outcome of this large-scale experiment might be surprising and inspiring for some. Yet, on balance, the development only seems to reinforce and expand the pre-existing surveillance matrix.

Ultimately, a new digital health-surveillance complex has emerged in China that includes regular measurement of body temperature, permanent individual movement tracking, and the tight censoring of negative emotions online. Whether the CCP will abandon these new intrusive forms of control once the epidemic has passed by remains a pressing question.

Dr. Maximilian Mayer is assistant professor at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. 

Nicholas Ross Smith is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China.