Lies, opportunity and the coronavirus: Beijing engages in damage control

Beijing is declaring success in its control of Covid-19. It’s a funny kind of success, though, because on closer examination it looks more like what Australia, Taiwan, South Korea and New Zealand are doing now.

What we would call ‘lockdown’ is still in place across much of the country.

In a country of 1.4 billion people, the Chinese government’s reported number of Covid-19 cases is 83,403, a figure which has pretty much flatlined since late February. That’s less than 0.006% of the Chinese population.

If you believe these official figures, then 99.994% of China’s population is still at risk of infection (not counting under-reported and unknown asymptomatic cases).

In comparison, Australia’s 6,462 cases make up 0.026% of our population, so 99.974% of our population is still at risk of infection. Our prime minister and chief medical officer are looking at ways to open some things up very slowly, but they’re not about to reopen the economy based on these figures. They can’t unless they want a pandemic that overwhelms our health system.

In China too, without a vaccine or way to control the spread of the virus other than tight physical lockdowns, the epidemic will simply accelerate through other parts of the country.

This pandemic started with a single infection in a wet market in Wuhan. It could get out of control again if just one infected individual slipped through Beijing’s control measures. Asymptomatic cases mean this is very likely to happen if controls are really lifted in meaningful ways.

So, any idea that the Chinese Communist Party has triumphed over Covid-19 is sadly wrong.

The only way China can get chunks of its economy back to business is by maintaining constraints on people’s movement or by sacrificing people’s health and lives in pursuit of production. That second path would mean tolerating outbreaks and the deaths they bring, which would be a cynical move demonstrating that the regime valued power and perceived success over the lives of its people.

Chinese officials were told by the party that in the ‘people’s war’ against Covid-19, rising infection numbers in their province or city would be a sign of failure. Since then, the official numbers across the country have fallen remarkably, with many areas now reporting no new cases.

Some of this is driven by ruthless suppression measures that are what we all know now as social distancing—although in China’s authoritarian system, that includes security personnel in hazmat suits whacking people with batons and dragging them into vans, as well as welding people into their apartments.

Remember, though, that it was local officials in Wuhan who supressed early reporting of cases, so it’s not a shock to see under-reporting of cases, given the pressure from the top.

The CCP is also setting the scene to blame foreigners coming into China for any second wave of infections, rather than the more likely source—community transmission within China itself.

Under the headlines touting President Xi Jinping’s success, we see a different story. A spokesperson for Beijing’s municipal government has announced that ‘epidemic control and prevention will probably become a long-term normal’ in China’s capital.

Beijing has become a biohazard fortress protected against its own citizens and against foreigners flying in—as we saw in footage of a UK Sky News crew returning to Beijing recently.

And Chinese authorities are putting out guidance like ‘3 tips for restaurants’: develop new menus for individual diners, sell food and vegetables online, offer takeaway.

None of this sounds like the economy is back to anything like business as usual.

In Wuhan itself, success looks a long way away, despite the central government’s announcement of the end of the lockdown there, during a curated tour of senior leaders, all wearing masks.

Tall barriers surround many housing compounds. Some people in ‘epidemic free’ residential compounds are now being allowed to leave their homes for up to two hours a day. Schools and universities are still closed; masks, temperature checks and identity checks are mandatory; and the city is sprinkled with ‘front line prevention and control positions’. Some travel in and out of Hubei province will now be permitted, but with rigorous checks on a tightly controlled number of travellers.

The measures in place in Wuhan look tighter than those in Australia—and they’re almost certain to remain so until a vaccine can be developed and rolled out.

Why the propaganda and the pretence?

The CCP wants to create the picture that China is managing the epidemic better than anyone else.

That’s for two reasons, one domestic and one strategic.

Domestically, the party needs the Chinese people to believe that it’s doing a great job, to get past the nasty truth that party mismanagement and repression let the virus spiral out of control first in China and then globally. The party also needs to the Chinese people to believe that only its rule can protect them.

Strategically, Xi’s success narrative is all about contrasting China with the US: authoritarianism is good, democracy is bad and weak. If it can deceive the world with this false narrative, Beijing thinks it can gain global power and influence.

As with all narratives, there has to be at least a tenuous connection to reality; it is true that the US isn’t managing the epidemic well.

Unfortunately for the party’s narrative, however, there is a global best practice beacon of governance and Covid-19 control in North Asia—and it’s not on mainland China. It’s the democracy of Taiwan, which, with a population about the size of Australia’s, has 395 confirmed cases and 6 deaths.

Taiwan shows that global best practice for pandemic control doesn’t come from Xi’s authoritarian regime but from a true ‘democracy with Chinese characteristics’.

That’s a confronting truth that is just not reportable or even sayable in mainland China.

Other best practice countries are South Korea, New Zealand and Australia. And, like Taiwan, we’ve been able to get our populations’ cooperation without government thugs hitting them with batons or welding apartment doors shut.

That’s the narrative—and the truth—the world needs to hear, including the 1.4 billion Chinese citizens living under party rule.