Coronavirus: China's Struggle for Public Confidence

To understand the Corona virus outbreak, many are looking to comparisons with China’s SARS epidemic 17 years ago. Then as now, officials have been pinched between competing motivations – spread word of the infection in order to maximize awareness, minimize spread, and develop a track record of aggressively pursuing the public interest; versus keeping their jobs.

Xu Zhiyuan, a known critic of the government’s handling of SARS said in a recent New York Times interview, “I thought SARS would force China to rethink its governance mode… I was too naïve” (Yuan, 2020). While response time and medical facilities have all improved dramatically since then, Beijing remains tragically “old school” in its reliance on censoring the internet, media outlets, and civil society. In fact, since Xi Jinping’s rise to power, in many ways the Chinese government has experienced a revival of heavy-handed attempts to limit public knowledge in favor of "Weiwen" ( 维稳)- preserving social stability.

“The system is successful in that it destroyed the people with integrity, the institutions with credibility and a society capable of narrating its own stories,” Mr. Xu posted on social media. “What’s left is an arrogant power, a bunch of messy information and many fragile, isolated and angry individuals” (Yuan, 2020).

This organizational flaw is one that China cannot avoid as long as public education is viewed as a threat to the CCP’s hegemony and regional official’s perceived legitimacy. From 2002-2004 we saw a shocking disregard for public welfare as critical information about the SARS virus was actively suppressed. The same could be said of the 2000 HIV epidemic in Henan deriving from bungled attempts to incentivize plasma collection with appallingly hazardous collection practices (Bandurski & Martin, Breaking Through the Silence: The Untold Story of the Henen AIDS Epidemic, 2010). We’ve seen similarly depressing trends with the 2008 milk powder and countless other consumer product scares. There are improvements to be noted with the development of agencies reminiscent of the FDA, a rise in investigative journalism (at least through Hu Jintao’s presidency), and an empowered middle class increasingly pushing important conversations. But we have yet to see a reconciliation of the fact that public awareness is both quintessential and potentially damaging for the Central Government.

A 2015 example illustrates the conflict well. Then, a self-financed documentary by Chai Jing, former China Central Television journalist, exposed widespread disregard for legislation combating air pollution, widespread ignorance about the epidemic, and widespread practices by local businesses and governments to further entrench pollution emitting practices (Chai, 2015). Besides discussing at length just how bad the air pollution in China had gotten, the film also discussed steps that concerned citizens could take to report manufacturers, truck drivers, and other parties cutting corners in violation of Chinese law.

Initially officials were thrilled to enlist the common citizen in efforts to combat corruption and clean up Chinese skies. For a time, the film was widely available on all major video streaming sites in China with the tacet approval of the Central Government. But on March 7th of 2015, the film was banned for fear of negative public perceptions about Chinese smog and fear of collective action (Cui, 2017).

The shift from supporting to suppressing such discourse can and has given Chinese citizens whiplash throughout Chinese history. Students of ancient Chinese history will have heard of “Hundred Flowers Campaigns” used again with the same result as late as 1956 (MacFarquhar, 1960). Typically, the government seeks to enlist the good will and support of the Chinese people in aiding and even informing reform initiatives. Inevitably it seems like a good idea, until members of the Chinese elite suddenly become concerned that public involvement has turned into public dissent and the campaign gets quashed.

This is not a new dilemma for China.

How then does the Chinese government today take steps to promote hygienic practices, prevent hysteria, and coordinate in quarantine-ing initiatives while convincing everyone that “everything is under control” and “not that big a problem”? – Very precariously, as the headlines prove.

In November of 2002, the first instances of severe pneumonia (later attributed to SARS) were reported in China. By January 2003 there was a rush on antibotics and vinegar (a natural disinfectant). By February, word of the spread of a deadly new disease struck Guangzhou, China (Bandurski & Hala, 2010) . By May 19, 2004 when the World Health Organization declared China free of further instances of SARS (Yardley, 2005), more than 800 people had been confirmed killed, and 8,000 people confirmed infected by the disease (Hernández, 2020).

We had the first reports of the Coronavirus on December 31 of last year. China has been much faster this time in identifying and spreading news of the infection. But in the less than month since then, 26 have been confirmed dead and 881 confirmed infected (Yang & Abbot, 2020). We wait now for international recognition of the public health crisis, even as confirmed infections reach the United States. Official newspapers tout comprehensive campaigns to control the situation and emphasize the relative sparsity of observed incidents.

But travelers in the region would do well to remember that there is substantial reason to believe official reporting of the Corona outbreak to be understated, especially as a projected 3 billion journeys will be made during the Chinese New Year Holiday this weekend (Griffiths, 2020).

Indeed many are heeding the warnings as the 11th city in China implements a travel ban (bringing the travel restrictions scope to 30 million people), and pharmacies continue to sell out of flu masks and related infection prevention products. But how bad is it? Should I cancel my holiday? Is there anything I personally should do no to help contain the outbreak? These are questions Chinese citizens cannot expect an honest answer to and it’s a serious problem for the Chinese people and state alike. With low trust in the party line, citizens are prone to panic and underestimate the crisis simultaneously.

In moments like these, the Chinese people bear particular witness to the Emperor’s lack of clothing – that is, the inefficiencies of Chinese bureaucracy and the government’s bald-faced lies to pretend they don’t exist. Never is the Chinese government more bumbling than when it’s trying to contain a crisis of public confidence.

This month soon after the first local municipal health statement was issued, eight local people were detained for “spreading rumors about pneumonia” (Huang, 2020). It took several weeks for authorities to implement infrared thermometers in crowded public areas. People were and still are baffled by misinformation about the spread of the disease for some time – specifically whether human-to-human infections are possible or likely.

Quartz writer Echo Huang sums up China’s dilemma well. “In a system where people feel constantly tricked and puzzled by the discrepancies in the information they get, over time the public tends not to believe in anything the government says—and to disbelieve its representatives are acting in good faith” (Huang, 2020).

If China wants people to take party lines more seriously, it’s going to need to do some serious damage control by increasing discourse transparency in the face of inconvenient truths. But as protests in Hong Kong continue over rights of sovereignty, millions remain imprisoned in reeducation camps in Xinjiang, pollution causes widespread respiratory problems across the country, and we all now wait with baited breath to see how high the Coronavirus death tolls will jump this Chinese New Year, such a strategy seems an unlikely one for Xi and his administration.


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How is public support and faith in governmental media narratives similar and different between the US and China?

Do Americans trust the American government more or less than Chinese people trust the Chinese government? Why?

How can officials simultaneously coordinate effective public response to a crisis while minimizing hysteria and social unrest?

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