As usual, whenever the US President opens his mouth, there was widespread meltdown, drama, protests and – also quite typical – accusations of racism (!?).
Somehow nobody really did that when the accusations were thrown in the opposite direction. So, is it permissible for administration of one country to peddle unsubstantiated conspiracy theories and yet totally unacceptable for the other to respond with a term that is at least based on factual reality of where the disease originated?
President Trump isn’t really wrong here, but perhaps the term “Chinese” is a little too broad. Because the problem hasn’t erupted specifically because of China or Chinese people as a nation.
No, the Covid-19 outbreak happened due to a broken authoritarian system steering the PRC today – one that was designed and ruthlessly built up by one man – Xi Jinping.
Right now Beijing is busy pushing a global PR campaign to salvage its image. It is donating supplies to other countries, sending doctors around the globe, parading its good will and eagerness to help.
Let’s not forget, however, that current shortages of face masks or other equipment are a direct consequence of China effectively shutting down for two months, cutting deliveries to the rest of the world that chose to rely on it.
Most of the wholesale stockpiles in Europe have been depleted for weeks. Buying a surgical mask was practically impossible in the first week of February, when prices erupted by several hundred percent, as global panic buying began – long before the virus was even considered a threat to the Old Continent. Whenever asked about products the distributors could only shrug and reply that they have no idea when anything arrives because China is not delivering.
Therefore, even if foreign governments wanted to prepare for the worst, they largely couldn’t because the main source hoarded everything for itself, leaving the rest out in the cold.
Of course, one could excuse every single government for being primarily preoccupied with the well-being of its own citizens in a healthcare crisis – but it also shows that Chinese solidarity is only on display when Beijing can afford it quite effortlessly.
Crackdown… on the media
Before Chinese authorities acknowledged there is a problem they cracked down not on the spreading disease but on the people who warned and reported about it – like the now effectively martyred doctor Li Wenliang, who couldn’t have predicted that he had little over a month left to live when he raised the issue of a SARS-like disease spreading in Wuhan.
Summoned by the police for allegedly spreading misinformation he and others were silenced and communist censors got to work to purge the Chinese internet of alarmist reports, ahead of the upcoming Chinese New Year – disrupting which could be very costly economically (they must have thought).
Sadly, doctor Li contracted the disease and later died on February 7 at a young age of just 33.
With hundreds of cases detected – an avalanche Beijing could no longer ignore – Wuhan went into lockdown on Jan. 23rd, two days before the Chinese New Year and after about 5 million of its residents already left for the holiday, spreading the disease inside and outside of the country.
It was only then when the party started addressing the issue instead of trying to silence its coverage. And yes, Chinese authoritarianism did show its merits when it mobilized to build temporary hospitals for thousands of patients or was able to enact a lockdown of cities and entire provinces up and down the country in an ambitious bid to break the chain of transmission.
But it would be foolish to forget that it’s the same authoritarianism that created the problem in the first place – and it has certainly gotten worse under chairman Xi.
Down with Dengism
Deng Xiaoping was the architect of modern China and his experiences with Mao (both personal and political) led him to believe that while strong, central power is required to maintain stability (especially in a country as big as China), handing all the power to one man can easily result in instability and chaos.
And so the reforms of the 1980s (including a new constitution) dealt away with the position of the Chairman of the Party, reinstated presidency in its stead and limited the terms in office to two consecutive five year periods.
Deng also moved away from violent purges of political opponents that country experienced under Mao, allowing more discord and discussion, understanding that nobody has all the right answers. He himself never held the highest office, although remained in control as the most influential figure until retiring in 1993.
As a result the system he created was more party- than person-centric. Subsequent presidents were merely leaders of the CCP, technocrats-in-chief, leading the country and then passing the baton to the next person in line after their 10-year term is up. Such were the presidencies of Jiang Zemin and, especially, Hu Jintao – when China experienced great economic prosperity, successfully hosted Olympics in 2008 and appeared to be growing more humane, even if still governed in an authoritarian style.
Sadly, upon his rise to power Xi Jinping made it quite clear his presidency would not be one of continuity of this system.
His ambition was – and remains – to elevate himself as the central figure of China. Through his political reforms and questionable anti-corruption campaigns, which saw hundreds of party officials – including some of the top brass – jailed and purged from public life, he left no space for debate.
Deng’s idea of collective-leadership is dead and Maoist personality cult is back in full swing.
Along with Xi’s opponents gone are the presidential term limits – paving the way for him to hold power (like all true dictators) until he dies. His “thought” has been incorporated into the constitution and even forced onto universities, what prompted protests at Fudan University in Shanghai last year.
In 21st century China it’s Xi Jinping’s way – or the highway (to put it mildly). Of course the consequences of such concentration of power are obvious and observed in all overly authoritarian states in history.
If discord is discouraged (or worse) and absolute, unquestioning loyalty is the prerequisite to a successful life in business or politics, how many people are going to risk their neck telling the truth?
That’s how millions of officials are forced to be both dumb and numb, since the price of making risky – but often necessary – decisions has been made exorbitantly high.
Yes, there remain a few bold souls like doctor Li or Ren Zhiqiang, the mercurial property developer and outspoken critic of Xi Jinping – who has now mysteriously vanished after his latest tirade criticizing the handling of Covid-19 outbreak and calling Xi Jinping a “clown” – and has been uncontactable since March 12, prompting grave worry of his friends and family.
But few others will risk their livelihoods to upset the party leadership – so they won’t report issues or report them inaccurately, trying to avoid responsibility or the leadership’s wrath. And leadership itself is primarily concerned about appearances and protecting itself – ahead of protecting the people.
Perhaps with someone like Hu Jintao in charge the response would have been different. Perhaps the whistleblowers would be more eager to come forward. Perhaps the local party officials would be more decisive and outspoken. When he faced the SARS outbreak early into his presidency, the silencing of the health crisis and mishandling it led not only to dismissals of party officials but also to reforms that extended healthcare coverage for Chinese citizens.
With Xi Jinping, however, we’re back to old Maoist painting of the lawns ahead of the leader’s visit. Though today, thanks to the internet and social media, manipulative campaigns like the one tried in Wuhan, to thank visiting president, are rejected by the people (in a rare shows of public disobedience).
Even the Chinese, therefore, appear to understand that while the government ultimately acted and suppressed the outbreak, it was also its tardy response and suppression of information that led to it spiraling almost out of control, leading to massive national lockdowns – which certainly will exact a heavy toll on the Chinese economy and livelihoods of its citizens.
Cold War Governance in the 21st Century
Quite ironically, perhaps, what would have been a largely local issue in the divided, underdeveloped world of the past, today has become a global pandemic affecting nearly every person on the planet.
Blind, incompetent totalitarianism of Mao Zedong kept itself isolated from the rest of the world but the modern hybrid cooked up by Xi Jinping is a threat to us all, because it marries all the sins of the old system with globalization that China is now a critical part of.
As a result, whatever happens on the Chinese mainland may have serious consequences everywhere else.
I have often praised Chinese technocratic authoritarianism for its many achievements – elevating hundreds of millions of people out of dire poverty, swift infrastructural investments in roads, rail, air travel and sea shipping (that would take decades in Europe or America), its ability to retain internal security and stability, allowing people to go on about their lives without imminent threats of harm coming from crime or terrorism.
But what we see today no longer has much to do with technocracy. Competences, facts and science have taken a back seat in Chinese politics, being replaced by unwavering support for the supreme leader, leading China to resemble, in some aspects, North Korea more than any developed state in the world.
For all its technological competences, China has failed to apply them to decision making in the moment of greatest danger. In fact, it has failed to apply them far earlier, to ensure proper sanitary standards which would have prevented this and other outbreaks.
Beyond the veneer of modern advances its governance appears to be heading in the opposite direction. Concentration of power around one man has neutered the administration and rendered it useless in the face of a serious crisis.
China is a country with first world technology and third world laws.
In a lot of ways it is a reflection of its increasingly self-absorbed political class. Huge projects that allow decision makers to show off – highways, railways, airports, harbors or the military, or the entire Road and Belt Initiative – receive investment and coverage. But the invisible fabric of laws and regulations is still a tangled mess, a Capitalist-Marxist-Leninist chimera.
Of course with a top-down dictatorship nobody really cares about the laws since no checks and balances are put in place anyway and anything can be overruled by the decision of the supreme leadership which has entrenched itself even more under Xi Jinping. Which is why there was little to stop the outbreak as everybody kept looking at Beijing for answers.
As a result thousands of people around the world will die and lives of billions will be affected. Many will suffer, lose jobs – or their loved ones.
All because of one man and his unwarranted ambitions.