FANTASTIC PIECE BY ROGER BOYES AT THE LONDON TIMES. BRAVO!
Public anger is the virus China fears most
Xi Jinping’s authority is being questioned as the death toll from the coronavirus rises daily
The Great Stink of 1858 was a turning point for Victorian London. The smell of untreated sewage wafting through the streets forced the genteel to clutch handkerchiefs over noses and mouths just as the Chinese today don face masks. The city’s rapid growth had overwhelmed its capacity to deal with human waste. The result: wave after wave of cholera outbreaks and other health crises.
Today, the spread of a new coronavirus shows not only how China has miscalculated the effects of breakneck urbanisation but also how its political system is too rigid to deal effectively with public hygiene and pollution hazards. Every day the death toll rises and every day the authority of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, dribbles away.
It is highly unlikely that the virus will be anywhere near as fatal as the Spanish flu pandemic. And fears that it could, by biting into Chinese growth rates, drag down the whole global economy are probably overblown. The true contagion is within China’s political system itself, the special brand of techno-authoritarianism that has been patented by Xi. Its response at the outset of the epidemic in December was to muzzle local officials, detain doctors for “rumour-mongering” and patrol social media.
Then, Xi asserted control and quarantined the whole of Wuhan, a city the size of London. New hospitals were built from scratch. Xi was determined to show that an all-powerful central state could knock this crisis, any crisis, on the head. But now, in week eight, the real nature of Beijing’s concern has become clear: it’s terrified that the fragility of the whole communist regime is being exposed. A Politburo committee has just described the virus as being “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance”
The 19th-century response to cholera outbreaks in London was to back the engineer Joseph Bazalgette in devising a system of broad, brick-walled sewer tunnels that transported human waste eastwards into the tidal Thames and out to sea. It transformed the capital. Xi’s choice in dealing with epidemics is whether on the one hand to batten down the country, seek out saboteurs, wait for the death toll to stabilise and blame mistakes on local officials. Or to use the moment to invite more press scrutiny of Chinese bureaucracy, decentralise power and invest in the wellbeing of his citizens. He has to decide if the crisis is simply about the risk of China losing face in the world by appearing to be incompetent or if it’s about something more fundamental, an unstoppable breakdown of popular trust in communist rule.
The strength of democracies, argues the futurologist Yuval Noah Harari, is that they spread the power to process data among many people and institutions, thus permitting honest debate and critical challenge. That was one reason why the Soviet Union made worse decisions than America. But artificial intelligence may be handing the strategic advantage to dictatorial regimes and making them more efficient. That’s how Xi dupes his people into believing their personal data, harvested through face-scanning and the full panoply of the surveillance state, is being used for the common good.
At the early stage of the epidemic one Beijing propaganda outlet showed a Dalek-like robot delivering medicines to critically ill patients in a hospital ward. Since hundreds of would-be patients are queuing outside hospitals in Wuhan to get even a preliminary assessment of their condition, this went over like a lead balloon.
The fact is that while China is engaged in a high-tech race with the US and is determined to build high and fast and to set global rules, it is in many respects still a developing country that is leaving many of its people behind. The regime functions on the basis of two compacts with its subjects. It offers security and a stake in national prosperity in return for individual liberties and free expression. And the second deal tells people to abandon the idea of an alternative to the Communist Party. In return they will be guided towards a modern China that can shed the humiliations of the past.
What they are getting instead is a government ready to see its people fall sick rather than admit to chronic managerial failure. The benchmark of middle-class success, the ability to enjoy holidays abroad, has fallen away as countries close their borders. Small businesses are already in arrears as consumption drops. The Chinese business model is based on the mass movement of labour: 288 million, a third of the national workforce, migrate from their home provinces to the industrial heartlands. Now the migrants are not travelling anywhere, stuck at home unpaid, and those factories that are still functioning are suffering major labour shortages.
Wuhan is sealed off by the military and they are not popular. Army doctors, plainly exhausted, earn praise but the soldiers blocking approach roads just seem like uncaring enforcers. To some it seems like a dress rehearsal for martial law. It sows doubt about how Xi might use the army in the future. No wonder there is pressure in Hong Kong to close the border with the mainland.
China has weathered other epidemics but this one feels different. Once the virus is eventually brought under control, public anger will force change. Xi seems already to be laying the ground for a purge and may sacrifice his prime minister. But that won’t be enough to remove the Great Stink of 2020, the toxic recognition that the welfare of the people doesn’t count for much in the vainglorious rush to overtake the United States. Xi is in trouble.