China Power | Politics | East Asia

Can the Coronavirus Strengthen China’s Authoritarian Regime?

How the Chinese Communist Party is using the health scare to advance its control over Chinese society.

By Tobias Burgers and Scott N. Romaniuk for
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Can the Coronavirus Strengthen China’s Authoritarian Regime?
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In its race to combat COVID-19 – the disease caused by a novel strain of coronavirus that originated in Wuhan in December 2019 – China has embarked on a draconian path. The government started a “people’s war” against the virus, locked down cities and provinces, and sought to use its giant industrial complex to try to limit the virus’ spread. After weeks of ever-increasing numbers of infections and fatalities, we see, at least according to official Chinese governmental data, that the proliferation of the virus has begun to drop off from its peak.

In its efforts to contain and battle the virus, the Chinese government has deployed a wide array of high-tech solutions in tandem with limiting population movement. It has, among others, developed and widely deployed the Health Code, developed by Ant Financial, a sister company to tech giant Alibaba, in initial cooperation with the local government of Hangzhou, where both the Alibaba and Ant Financial headquarters are based. As The New York Times reported in an article, the app sends user data – including locations and identifying code numbers – to the police and other authorities. Not to be outdone, China’s other tech giant, Tencent, which owns WeChat, is working in collaboration with the government on digital health (and tracking) systems that send similar information.

Combined with the government database of travels within the nation, as well as hotel stays, linked to national identity card numbers, these empirically observable efforts suggest that Chinese government is endeavoring to implement a nation-wide tracking system in the name of containing of the virus. As such, the health scare has created the latest node in the (continued) rise of China’s networked authoritarianism model. Until now, much of the high-tech surveillance blanket was limited to “hotspots of trouble” like Tibet and Xinjiang. The government implemented regional wide surveillance systems in Tibet after the uprisings and incidents between 2012 and 2015. In Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has created a high-tech mass-surveillance blanket, supported by a region-wide police presence and in combination with forced labor, re-education, training camps, and prison systems into which millions of Uyghurs, and others, have vanished. The CCP actively defended and even lauded these efforts, in the name of “stability maintenance.”

In the words of Xu Zhangrun, China’s government has created a state of “big data totalitarianism,” what has been called Beijing’s “Data Leviathan.” Yet, the more forceful, all-encompassing side of this network as witnessed in Xinjiang and Tibet – which together cover 30.14 percent of the country’s geographical area but account for just 1.8 percent of the total population – had yet to be expanded to the rest of the country. Despite the obvious economic and human-related downsides of the virus outbreak and its persistence, COVID-19 has presented the Xi regime and the CCP with an opportunity to consolidate and proliferate this model further, eventually encompassing most, if not all, of China. Accordingly, the virus can be used as an expedient excuse for deepening totalitarian control, and abolishing what remained of the already-limited free, individual space within the state.

In a dictatorship, all other aspirations and goals are dependent on regime security. COVID-19 may be considered as a quasi-internal security threat, albeit one that is shared by other nations and governments and does not pose the same kind of threat as a popular revolt or uprising by the people. On the other hand, COVID-19 cannot be treated entirely as an external security threat, either, which states typically respond to by prioritizing economic and military development. We therefore see the Xi regime, as both rational and preoccupied with survival, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic as something that falls between an internal and external security threat (though leaning slightly more toward a threat from within the state), borrowing characteristics from both response strategies to take advantage of a window of opportunity to entrench control under the guise of protecting the people.

The 2002-2003 SARS outbreak in China put the gaps of China’s mass surveillance and sate control apparatus into sharp focus. This is one of the reasons why the CCP has responded differently and so aggressively in contrast to what was seen during the SARS outbreak. While some arguments might point to this as evidence of China’s progress in addressing outbreaks, the sudden emergence of COVID-19 reveals some of the direct benefits that dictatorships can extract from health emergencies when placed in a security context.

The argument developed so far suggests that the economic costs of COVID-19 are not severe enough to cause major concern for China. Thanks to the pandemic, China’s economic growth for 2020 has been optimistically set at between 5-6 percent – approximately half of the state’s exceptional growth rate in 2009 and 2010, and around 2 to 2.5 percentage points below the average for the 2012-2019 period. Thus the spread of COVID-19 does not warrant concern that the internal security of the regime is threatened – in fact, the disease has done much to limit individual agency, as people have become increasingly reliant on the capacities of the state to protect them. In that light, the pandemic exposes a unique opportunity for the CCP to advance the necessary justification for a tightened security policy.

We posit that COVID-19 in a regime-state security context can be cast as a similar imperative as terrorism, requiring a buildup of the necessary structures for full-spectrum surveillance of China’s citizens: using drones to enforce quarantines, lockdowns, mask wearing, and so on. What we see afterward is the impossibility of de-escalating the security imperative and returning to a state of “normalcy,” even for contemporary dictatorships. When health crises are treated with the severity as any one of the CCP’s “three evils,” they are elevated to the level of existential threat, necessitating beyond-normal politics and policy responses.

Events and practices observed in China since December 2019 lead to the general conclusion that China has moved past developing and implementing surveillance-based, high-tech security and control in troubled spots and is rolling out the model on a nation-wide level. Using the virus, the CCP appears to be acting on its concern over regime survival. For a long time, the regime would not extend beyond its unspoken social contract, lest it intrude on the limited freedom/surveillance model too much. However, the coronavirus scare — in combination with Xi Jinping’s emphasis on control — it might be the right moment for a change. This might also foreshadow future CCP responses to issues impacting states such as climate change, recessions/depressions, and further health crises. Dictators have been shown to act with partial responsibility for broader society beyond the state but in ways that are either predominantly or concomitantly self-serving. The COVID-19 case and China’s response suggests the CCP has a plausible pathway to control the population, deter unrest, and enhance stability maintenance.

Every new innovation introduced to combat the virus also provides evidence of just how invasive and controlling Xi’s reign has become. Quarantines and lockdowns can gain time that enables governments to seek solutions, whether medical, social, economic – but these  are not enduring solutions in and of themselves. Recent decades suggest many Chinese have tolerated the political excesses of Big Brother, even when they disliked them. However, in return, Big Brother was expected to protect lives and livelihoods from economic, social, environmental, and health threats. Whether people think that deal still stands may determine if the country can pull off the swift economic recovery that China, and the world, needs.

Dr. Tobias Burgers is a project assistant professor at the Cyber Civilization Research Center, Keio University, Tokyo, Japan.

Dr. Scott N. Romaniuk is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Security Studies at the China Institute, University of Alberta.