Eye on China is a weekly bulletin offering news and analysis related to the Middle Kingdom from an Indian interests perspective.
I. The Coronavirus Outbreak
Cases & Fatalities: The campaign to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus remains the big story across Chinese media. Here are the official numbers put out by the Chinese side:
– 9,692 confirmed cases in 31 provincial-level regions and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps.
– 213 deaths reported so far.
– 1,527 patients in critical condition
– 15,238 people suspected of being infected.
The data informs us that the number of confirmed cases is going to increase over the next few weeks. This number has already crossed the number of SARS infections that had been reported in 2002-03. But what’s also noteworthy is that the fatality rate in the case of the novel coronavirus remains low, at around 2.2%. In comparison, SARS fatality rate was around 11%.
If you’d like to stay updated on the developments, Caixin has an excellent live feed. Some of the noteworthy occurrences through the week so far have been.
Chinese State Response: The WHO on Thursday declared the outbreak as a global health emergency, acknowledging that the disease represents a risk outside of China. In making the declaration, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised China’s response. “Let me be clear: This declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China…On the contrary, the WHO continues to have confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak,” he said. Earlier, he’d met the Chinese leadership. To Xi, he reportedly said that it is admirable that the Chinese government has shown its solid political resolve and taken timely and effective measures in dealing with the epidemic. President Xi’s personal guidance and deployment show his great leadership capability.
Xi, on the other hand, told Tedros that “the epidemic is a devil. We will not let it hide.” He further emphasised that the Chinese government had “released information about the epidemic in a timely, open, transparent and responsible manner, responded to concerns of all sides actively, and enhanced cooperation with the international community.” The fact that the entire Party-state machinery in China is being directed towards combating the virus is worth noting, from pledging party and state finances to mobilising medical workers and armed forces. But the argument on transparency isn’t as straightforward. Chinese media reports tell us that there were failures, at least at the local level in Wuhan to take appropriate and timely action.
Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang acknowledged the criticism on Monday. But he also highlighted regulatory restrictions that he faced. “Because it is an infectious disease, and we have the infectious disease prevention law to regulate information disclosure,” he said, “as a local government, after we have the information, we can only reveal it after approval.” Zhou said that Wuhan was only able to act after the State Council, China’s cabinet, held an emergency meeting on the virus on Jan. 20.
And then there’s the case of eight Wuhan citizens who were reprimanded by local police for “fabricating, disseminating and spreading rumors” after posting online about a “SARS-like” coronavirus in late December. The state now appears to have backed away. Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, now says “in retrospect, we think highly of them.”
Li Takes Charge: Meanwhile Li Keqiang was in Wuhan this week, visiting hospitals and encouraging the fight against the virus. Xinhua tells us that Li was “entrusted by Xi Jinping” with this task. Li is also heading the leading group on this issue. So this is the sword that Li would fall on, if things worsen, as this WSJ piece argues. “If Beijing’s efforts to contain the virus fail, however, Mr. Xi could seek to insulate himself from public anger by making Mr. Li take the blame, tarnishing the premier’s reputation—even if Mr. Li is unlikely to face any formal penalty.”
While in Wuhan, there were multiple aspects that Li covered, from hospital building to promising people about the availability of essential supplies. The new hospitals being built in Wuhan will add capacity, but until then, the 24-hour live streaming of the work is remarkable propaganda. Li also visited the CDC in Beijing, discussing vaccine development, and held a State Council meeting this week. The meeting ended by asking “CPC committees and governments at all levels to resolutely act on General Secretary Xi Jinping’s instructions and the CPC Central Committee’s directive, put people’s interests above everything else, and take decisive steps to effectively prevent and control the epidemic.” In addition, apart from essential supplies, there was a focus on procuring protective suits, facial masks, safety goggles and medicine. They also sought to put in place enhanced inter-agency coordination, calling on different agencies to follow the leadership of the leading group.
Fear, Anger & Nationalism: There’s also another interesting strand of Chinese media coverage of the story. There has been some acknowledgement of the poor handling of the outbreak by officials. But there’s also been a resort to nationalism amid public anger and defense of the Party-state. For instance, there’s this Xinhua commentary:
“China’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak is unprecedented in human history. It is a responsible move for people at the epicenter of the epidemic, for people in the rest of the country, and for the world at large…The strength and effectiveness of the Chinese leadership in responding to crises lies in its consistent approach: always listen to people’s needs, always mobilize resources at the earliest possible date, and never shirk responsibilities when meeting challenges.”
And then there’s this: “Seventeen years after China fought the SARS epidemic, it has developed better disease combating mechanisms in terms of emergency response and transparency. The public has also become more composed and sober in facing the epidemic. China is not what it was 17 years ago. The virus will be beaten, just as Spring will come.”
Also, here’s a Global Times editorial, which while accepting failures at local and national level, calls for unity:
“At this time, we must form a strong national battle line. If we take effective and precise measures, the situation will witness a turning point after a short period of high-intensity measures…Despite quite a number of complaints and dissatisfaction in public opinion, the most urgent task right now is to win the battle against the novel coronavirus. This is the collective will of the country and the people.”
This call of unity perhaps has more to do with than just the desire to ensure support for the leadership. For instance, as Li Yuan writes in this NYT piece, there is real anger bubbling in China with the party-state.
“Residents of Wuhan and its province, Hubei, are being chased off planes and ousted from hotels and villages. Online critics are comparing current leaders unfavorably with past ones, even though the older generation had its own tarnished record on responding to emergencies. Some people have urged local party officials to kill themselves. As cracks show in China’s veneer of stability, even some with ties to the party leadership are calling for those in power to shine light on divisions rather than papering them over. The crisis has shown that China remains riddled with vulnerabilities that no amount of censorship or strong-arming can hide,” she writes.
Another notable piece is this one by Raymond Zhong in NYT. He writes:
“In recent days, critics have pounced when officials in the city of Wuhan, the center of the outbreak, wore their protective masks incorrectly. They have heaped scorn upon stumbling pronouncements. When Wuhan’s mayor spoke to official media on Monday, one commenter responded, “If the virus is fair, then please don’t spare this useless person.” The condemnations stand as a rare direct challenge to the Communist Party, which brooks no dissent in the way it runs China. In some cases, Chinese leaders appear to be acknowledging people’s fear, anger and other all-too-human reactions to the crisis, showing how the party can move dramatically, if sometimes belatedly, to mollify the public. Such criticism can go only so far, however. Some of China’s more commercially minded media outlets have covered the disease and the response thoroughly if not critically. But articles and comments about the virus continue to be deleted, and the government and internet platforms have issued fresh warnings against spreading what they call ‘rumors’.”
Blocking Taiwan: There are at least two coronavirus cases that have been confirmed in Taiwan. And reports inform that Beijing and Taipei have exchanged information. Yet, there are real concerns about the targeting of Taiwan because of Beijing’s clout. Taiwan vice president-elect William Lai offered China help on Sunday. That was followed by President Tsai Ing-wen on Thursday repeating the offer and extending her sympathies. However, this masks frictions. There are some 400 Taiwanese in Wuhan, and China has so far not responded to a request to help evacuate them. Then there’s the question of Taiwan being kept out of the WHO. Tsai made a strong case against the exclusion this week: “We have the capability and the responsibility to do our part for the international community, and we hope that the WHO will not exclude Taiwan for political reasons…The WHO must make room for Taiwan’s participation.” Japan’s Shinzo Abe and Canada’s Justin Trudeau have so far voice support for Taipei publicly. But similar concerns are also being echoed with regard to the International Civilian Aviation Organisation.
Global & Economic Impact: WHO’s designation on Thursday is an acknowledgement of the international impact of the coronavirus. So far, cases have been reported across 18 countries, including 1 in India. This interactive map is useful to keep track. There have been a number of developments therefore, around the world, with airlines stopping flights and governments issuing advisories. The US State Department has issued an advisory asking people not to travel to China. The new advisory is at Level 4, the highest alert, reserved for the most perilous situations. The US has also reported its first case of person-to-person transmission. It’s still early days, but the economic impact of the fear of associating with others owing to the virus and the shutdowns that have been imposed in China are likely to be far reaching. Already there is an impact on air travel, tourism, exports, retail sales and manufacturing in China and so on. As this Economist piece says: “Chen Long of Plenum, a consultancy, thinks China’s growth could slouch to 2% year-on-year in the first quarter, its weakest in decades, down from 6% in the final quarter of 2019. But he expects a strong rebound when the country gets back to normal.”