Brace for a more authoritarian China

What will post-coronavirus China look like? David Williams talks to Kiwi journalist Anna Fifield, of the Washington Post

Last week, China’s health authorities said there had been only one new case of local transmission of Covid-19 over the previous five days. In the city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak in China and source of the global pandemic which has sent billions of people into lockdown, had none.

The claims were met with deep skepticism by experts – indeed, as have the country’s overall coronavirus numbers.

Washington Post correspondent Anna Fifield, who’s stuck in Havelock North after China banned entry to foreigners, says Chinese statistics are, at the best of times, unreliable and massaged to fit political aims.

To think there’s only been one domestic transmission in a country of 1.4 billion people seems, quite frankly, ridiculous, she says.

“It’s understandable that there’s skepticism about numbers, and the evaluation of the situation in China because, first of all, the Chinese government did cover up the virus for the first month at least, and then blatantly lied about how it could be transmitted in those first weeks, which definitely led to the spread of the virus across China.”

The trend, however, is clear. China’s draconian isolation rules, including using scary – or impressive, depending on your view – Big Brother monitoring technology, really has worked. Domestic transmission has been reduced to negligible levels, Fifield says.

Some schools have re-opened, in less populated areas, and many people are returning to work, emerging from coronavirus-forced hibernation into a new world of physical distancing. Optimistic noises are being made about factories restarting.

Chinese society is being put back together, albeit in an economy that, relatively speaking, is barely functioning.

The big question now, Fifield says, is the size of the economic hit.

“The economy hasn’t contracted since the end of the cultural revolution in 1976 and in fact the Chinese leader Xi Jinping has a goal of having the economy double from 2010 to 2020.

“If the economy does contract in this quarter and that impact lasts through the rest of the year, that’s going to have really huge political implications as well as, obviously, very clear implications for people’s standard of living and quality of life.”

Another big question is, how will the Chinese Communist Party respond?

Is a downturn a deal-breaker?

Fifield says the Party has ruled China in a deal that promises economic growth at the cost of political freedom – a compact that’s been somewhat begrudgingly accepted by most people in past decades. It has been tolerated, in the main, because of big increases in wealth and living standards.

Once the virus is contained, there’s the prospect of a big economic downturn with mass unemployment and lower wages. It seems unavoidable considering the United States, which has a rapacious appetite for Chinese goods and services, is also heading for a recession.

The Communist Party’s promise of unending growth, therefore, would be broken.

“That could undermine the legitimacy of the Communist Party,” Fifield says. She quickly adds she’s not predicting the collapse of communist rule in China. “But it will fundamentally change the deal with society.”

How so? There might be personnel changes, she suggests, and it may weaken the authority of leader Xi Jinping.

“He’s personalised the Chinese political system like no one since Mao [Zedong]. So it could really weaken him and lead to dissent within the Party. And it could just lead to more bubbling up, more criticism within society.”

Some speculate the virus debacle – the coverup, the bungled response, the high-profile death of Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang – might spark a re-think from the Communist Party to act more transparently.

“I think it will probably lead to more tightening in China,” Fifield said. “The system will get more authoritarian and stricter and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will think that they need more of this technological surveillance and more ability to lock down whole cities, with millions of people, and increase the need for these authoritarian tools, not the opposite.”

University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady, a China expert, says, on the one hand it’s hard to believe the CCP could be even more repressive. But the Party’s “micro-controls” over Chinese society have dramatically increased during the Covid-19 crisis. She notes people have been literally locked into their houses, and videos emerged of doors being welded shut.

“It seems like it’s being used as an opportunity to further strengthen societal and political controls in China.”

Changing the narrative

China is keenly aware its disastrous mishandling of the virus has hurt its international reputation. A report emerged at the weekend of furious British Ministers saying China faces a “reckoning”.

The most public repudiation, of course, has been US President Donald Trump’s many public statements linking the virus back to China and Wuhan. (Brady: “Occasionally Trump gets a home run.”)

The Communist Party has pushed back hard against such narratives, including expelling 13 American journalists working for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Fifield’s Washington Post.

At the same time, China has launched an international charm offensive, making seemingly magnanimous donations and sales of masks and medical equipment to Spain, Italy and other nations affected by Covid-19.

“It seems to be working in a lot of ways,” Fifield says. “The Italian government in particular has been very grateful and been singing China’s praises in helping them at this time, contrasting that with the lack of help from other European countries, or from the US – before the US got hit with this.”

However, the move backfired, somewhat, as hundreds of thousands of masks and test kits being revealed as defective.

Brady, of the University of Canterbury, says international critiques of China by world leaders have been incredibly muted. Outwardly, then, one might think the reputational damage to China will be limited.

But Brady believes more is happening in the background. She refers to the Chinese saying: “Zuo er bu shuo” – which means, to do and not say.

“It makes sense to me that the small and medium powers won’t be shouting they’ll just be acting – pull together more, strengthen their cooperation.”

A test of China’s outward attitude will be when its borders re-open to foreigners. Fifield says: “I still have my press card and will be returning when the ban lifts.”

Brady picks that might not happen for 18 months. She’s deeply troubled by China’s expulsion of journalists – which has been reported as a tit for tat move after the US designated five Chinese state media outlets as foreign missions, capping the number of journalists that can work for them.

“That’s the kind of thing that governments do in the lead-up to a war,” Brady says. “It’s a very worrying action.”

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