China may yet step up as a responsible public goods provider during the epidemic, sharing its lessons learned and providing much-needed aid. However, the efforts to change the narrative of the outbreak and extol the virtues of China's authoritarian system can have dangerous results, argues Filip Šebok in a new article for CHOICE.
The coronavirus epidemic has become a major test for China’s global image. While Beijing has faced criticism for its mismanagement of the epidemic in the beginning, its seeming success in containing the outbreak contrasted with the lackluster response of some Western democracies has led to efforts to change the global narrative.
From defeat to victory
Thanks largely to the work of Chinese investigative journalists, it is clear that China has botched its initial response to the coronavirus outbreak. The system prioritizing political stability over all ignored and even suppressed the first accounts of the outbreak in December. Doctors sharing the story, including Li Wenliang, were reprimanded for “spreading rumors” and endangering social stability, an all-too common indictment in the country. Until the central government first belatedly commented on the virus on January 20, the situation has already spun out of control.
A series of extremely strict measures was soon taken in short succession, including the lockdown of Wuhan from January 23. The immense mobilization of the whole power of the Chinese Party-state resources and practically whole Chinese population in the “people’s war” against the virus has been unprecedented. The tides of the fight seem to have turned by the beginning of March, with the outbreak contained to Hubei and the number of ‘imported’ cases exceeding locally transmitted cases.
Due to the fundamental logic of the CCP control, from the very beginning the Party propaganda apparatus has taken up the task of managing the narrative of the Beijing’s response to the epidemic. At home, it entailed a further clampdown on independent voices, despite such suppression worsening the outbreak in the first place. Massive amount of “positive energy” was pumped into the public discourse, limiting any critical or negative news. Beijing has faced an unusually difficult challenge with several public opinion crises, such as when the Wuhan Party secretary Wang Zhonglin tried to get the Wuhan residents “thank the Party” for its response to the epidemic, causing public outcry. Yet, in the end the CCP has taken credit for its coming victory in the “people’s war” as a clear sign of the “superiority of the Chinese system”. Alas, no soul-searching seems to be at hand, as the responsibility for the mishandling of the crisis has been attributed to few local leaders.
Read more in the full article below.