People wearing face masks walk at a downtown street in Hong Kong Monday, Feb. 17, 2020.

People wearing face masks walk at a downtown street in Hong Kong Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. AP / Vincent Yu

China’s Chernobyl Never Seems to Arise

Democracy is unlikely to break out in Beijing, but the coronavirus crisis may create an opening for a softer form of authoritarianism.

For a cottage industry of Western experts, the fall of the Chinese Communist Party is always just one crisis away. In 2008, it was the Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan province that toppled shoddily constructed schools and killed 70,000 people. Later that year, 300,000 babies became sick from drinking milk made from formula tainted with melamine, which revealed the fragility of the country’s food-safety system. In 2011, it was a collision of high-speed trains in Wenzhouthat showed the problems with the country’s pace of infrastructure development. Each of these catastrophes was going to be China’s version of Chernobyl, the nuclear leak that revealed and accelerated the terminal decline of the Soviet Union, but that moment has never come.

Now 2020 has brought the novel coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 1,600 people and sickened 69,000. The outbreak clearly has been worsened by unforced errors by the Chinese government, and for that reason could (or should) be the basis of a legitimacy crisis.

Yet claims about the “brittle nature” of the Communist Party’s rule reflect a certain amount of wishful thinking. By focusing on the prospect of revolution and regime change in China, Western commentators are missing the more nuanced debates that will ultimately be more important for the future of the Chinese government and people.

For much of the Communist Party’s history, the overarching question in its elite circles has not been whether democracy or authoritarianism is more attractive, but which version of authoritarianism is best. As documented in research by Jonathan Stromseth, Edmund Malesky, and Dimitar Gueorguiev, there have always been two schools of thought: a more coercive model, and one based more on openness to and participation by citizens and elites alike. Xi Jinping is firmly in the coercive camp, but the coronavirus outbreak has become a tragic case study of what’s wrong with his method of governance.

China today is arguably the most repressive it has been since the period following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Xi has fostered a cult of personality; removed any semblance of opposition within the Communist Party; centralized power around himself; gutted civil society; jailed hundreds of human-rights, labor, feminist, and pro-democracy activists; and tightened control of social and traditional media. His answer for how to best to govern Chinese society: Control it. Dominate it.  

A public-health crisis is exacerbated by such a government. Local officials in Wuhan and Hubei province, too scared to report bad news in their jurisdictions, were slow to act during the onset of the outbreak. Health-care workers and citizen journalists who tried to warn the public were censored and detained, including the heroic whistle-blower Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist who later died of the virus himself.

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Citizens and health experts need good information, but most official statistics in China are unreliable. Chinese colleagues of mine whisper, based on past experience, that the government must be radically underestimating the number of deaths. Nobody really knows how many people have the virus, and even expert baseline estimates of its mortality rate are unreliable. Some observers are even looking to air pollution near crematoriums to try to deduce death totals.

These issues aside, Americans should be skeptical of any “coming collapse of China” predictions. The Communist Party has a well-defined playbook for handling the deadly crises that have arisen on its watch.

Step 1: Find a local official to take the blame. In political science, we often describe China’s governing system as one of “fragmented authoritarianism.” Responsibility for making and implementing policies is diffused across multiple levels of government. This structure allows for easy scapegoating in times of crisis. For the coronavirus, local officials in Wuhan and Hubei have been blamed for mishandling the outbreak. Jiang Chaoliang, the highest-ranking official in Hubei, recently resigned in disgrace.  

Step 2: Respond aggressively, even excessively. When a crisis arises, the central government will take great pains to show that it cares. This is what the author Ian Johnson recently called “Actionism”—action for action’s sake. This response might come in the form of a new law, or visits by top officials to the affected area. Entire cities, roughly 50 million people, have been quarantined in response to the coronavirus. And on evening television, the news shows clips of cranes and cement mixers building whole hospitals in just a matter of days. (Of note: These machines have become internet celebrities in China).

Step 3: Control the narrative. In China’s political-education system, citizens are taught to internalize the idea of “struggle.” China’s rejuvenation will come only if citizens join together to work hard, solve problems, and develop the country. When necessary, the Communist Party taps into those ideas, and it has framed the coronavirus as just another obstacle the people must struggle against. Anyone proffering the counter narrative—that the Chinese government has needlessly endangered its people—is silenced. The courageous citizen video journalist Chen Qiushi, who exposed the poor conditions in Wuhan hospitals, has recently gone missing.

This playbook is largely effective, not in actually resolving problems but in preserving the clean and competent image of top Communist Party leaders. One of the most robust findings in the study of Chinese politics is that citizen anger over corruption or misrule is usually directed at local officials, rather than the central government or senior party leadership, which enjoy very high levels of trust. Little evidence suggests that citizens blame China’s governance problems on the authoritarian system itself. The party’s narrative—that it is leading the “people’s war” against the novel coronavirus—has more cultural resonance and dominates all media.

So the regime will go on. The question now is whether the suffering and sickness of the Chinese people these past few weeks has changed the mind of anybody in the Chinese Communist Party who matters.

There is another way for the party to rule: what we might call the participatory model. Hu Jintao offered hints of this approach during his tenure as China’s leader from 2002 to 2012, and certain localities (namely Guangdong province) have developed it as well. The party remains in absolute control, yes, but civil society is allowed some space to develop. The government is more transparent about its activities and invites citizens to take part in policy making. Party leaders play nice with one another and share power, delegating responsibility more equally in line with individual expertise. Muckraking journalists, human-rights lawyers, nongovernmental organizations—these things can be good for the Chinese government, because they allow some check on local malfeasance and provide information on citizen grievances. This answer for how best to govern Chinese society amounts to: Empower it, within boundaries.

This model and Xi’s have always coexisted, embodied in the ruling philosophies of different officials and their jurisdictions. One province can be more open and participatory, another brutally repressive. One ministry in the government can be wonderfully transparent, another dated and out of touch. Throughout the history of the People’s Republic of China, periods of openness have given way to coercive turns, and vice versa. Maoist totalitarianism preceded Deng Xiaoping’s opening, which was interrupted by the Tiananmen Square massacre and its aftermath. That eventually led to a softer Communist Party under Hu Jintao, who was replaced by the repressive Xi Jinping.

Any change in China will come from the top. Contrary to popular belief, Xi Jinping has not formally secured the right to rule China for the rest of his life. He appears bent on doing so, but according to existing party norms, he should hand over power to someone else in 2022. This means that for the next two years, there will be a power struggle within the party—one that outsiders will be unable to observe unless it turns particularly nasty. Xi will likely prevail, but that is not a guarantee.

After the failures of the Great Leap Forward—the period from 1958 to 1962 in which upwards of 45 million Chinese died from famine and forced labor—Mao Zedong was edged out by his peers and forced, albeit temporarily, to remove himself from the day-to-day business of governance. In the best of worlds, the lives needlessly lost in the coronavirus outbreak will give other party leaders the wisdom and courage to change course, to challenge Xi from the inside and repudiate his model.

A democratic revolution is unlikely to break out anytime soon, but modern Chinese history shows the problems that arise when a single leader becomes too powerful. In the words of the whistle-blower, the late Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, “a healthy society should not have just one voice.”

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