Tiananmen Square. Photo Credit: Anna Liu.
A global health emergency surpassing the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2002-2003, COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease 2019) now infects more than 75,000 people (as of Wednesday, February 19), with all but around 800 cases inside mainland China.[i] With countries around the world banning travel to and from China, the Chinese government locking down cities, and the number of cases snowballing, a crisis is coming. The economic impact of the coronavirus will be severe as the repercussions of a quarantined China continue rippling around the world. And as Chinese citizens’ frustration increases, the CCP faces growing criticism. While this coming economic crisis and rising citizen disgruntlement may have negative ramifications for the regime, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will tread carefully, utilize its comprehensive tools to control information and suppress criticism, and resiliently emerge as “the hero” who delivers China from yet another enemy.
Incoming Economic Instability
The city of Wuhan, located in China’s Hubei province, is the source of the outbreak. Over 11 million people reside in Wuhan (almost 1.5 times more than New York City), and the Hubei province boasts over 58 million people.[ii] The city-wide quarantine has now extended to the entire province, with cities around China also taking precautionary measures to contain the virus by limiting travel and public gatherings. While Wuhan’s rate of economic growth exceeded the country’s average growth at the start of the year, that is no longer the case.[iii] Indeed, the coronavirus will vitiate the economic vitality of both the Hubei province and the rest of the country.
The coronavirus outbreak now affects almost every industry in China, hitting major sectors of its economy and affecting large parts of its workforce, reducing workforce participation and rates of productivity. Public places remain desolate, schools and universities extend holidays, and travel bans amass. The tourism industry has been severely impacted, and foreign companies, such as Starbucks, Disney, Apple, and Ikea, have indefinitely closed stores.[iv] United, Delta, and American Airlines have all suspended service to and from China at least until late March or early April, and the U.S. State Department issued a level 4 warning— its highest— to dissuade U.S. citizens from traveling to China.[v] Dozens of countries followed suit by issuing similar travel bans, and more than 30 other airlines around the world halted flights to and from China, which only further undermines its economy.[vi] International supply chains are also suffering. For example, Hyundai ordered a temporary freeze of production lines in South Korea because of shortages in car parts from China.[vii] The international reaction frustrates the mobilization of China’s international imports and exports and introduces significant uncertainty into global supply chains. Some economists have argued that the virus may crimp China’s economy and drag global GDP back to 2019 levels, a year in which economic growth rates were at their worst point since the global financial crisis.[viii]
Just off the mainland in Hong Kong, the outbreak is reviving anger and frustration toward the Chinese government. Memories of the SARS outbreak still haunt Hong Kongers.[ix] From 2002 to 2003, SARS infected more than a thousand and killed approximately 300 in the densely populated city. While some believe the coronavirus’ overall economic impact will be on par with SARS, the Chinese economy is more vulnerable than it was in 2003.[x] China is immensely more connected and economically ensconced within the global economy than it was in the early 2000s. In 2003, China represented only 5 percent of the global economy.[xi] Today, China represents almost 20 percent of the worldwide economy.[xii] With economic growth slowing down in the last several years, the international economic environment is even more susceptible to turmoil. The amount of international travel originating from China is also the largest in the world, with over 143 million trips abroad in 2017.[xiii]
China is the world’s largest commodity buyer and the number one trading partner for some of the world’s biggest economies.[xiv] As the number of infected continues increasing and cities around China remain economically stalled, the country faces ever-growing economic losses.
Party Priorities to Control Criticism
The CCP faces an extremely challenging situation. With many of its citizens expecting government competence and reliability on account of the economic prosperity it has provided, the CCP may take a reputational hit for its initial inaction when the coronavirus outbreak first appeared. Unfortunately for many in the most heavily affected areas in China, the scale of the outbreak demonstrates a government failure. The bureaucratic stability mechanism that censors and suppresses government criticism also censored public reports of the coronavirus in early December. This stability mechanism also hindered the effective spread of information about the virus and retarded local government responses. These factors directly contributed to the chaos now impacting the region. Videos and pictures of Wuhan continue flooding international media outlets, showing sick citizens left unattended, overcrowded hospitals, and the dead abandoned in the streets.[xv]
Chinese citizens criticized the government on social media for knowing about the outbreak but prioritizing censorship over public health.[xvi] The first known infection of the coronavirus was retroactively confirmed on December 1, 2019, with more significant concerns in medical circles by late December.[xvii] The government informed the WHO by December 31, 2019, but continued censoring information, going so far as disciplining several doctors who circulated information about the virus on social media.[xviii] The controversial case of Dr. Li Wenliang, the famous coronavirus “whistleblower,” illustrates the application of CCP censorship. Before the Wuhan government announced the outbreak, Li posted in a private WeChat group about an unknown virus, and his post was screenshot and circulated online. Li and several other doctors were then punished for “spreading rumors.”[xix] If the coronavirus chokes off the Chinese economy, China’s prioritization of censorship over public health will haunt public opinion of the Party—at least initially.
As nation-wide city quarantines continue, medical supplies and basic necessities will grow increasingly challenging to acquire. The government must be able to meet these needs, inhibit the virus’s spread, and keep everyone fed. All of this is in addition to maintaining national stability (维稳).
A Critical Time to Censor and Stabilize
With a coronavirus vaccine months or years away, this is a critical time for the CCP to appear strong and effective in controlling the effects of the epidemic. All the CCP must do is propagandize and highlight the Party’s heroic handling of the epidemic and utilize its most efficient and effective public opinion tool: government censorship. Just like the 2019 disinformation campaign directed at Hong Kong, which effectively censored all mainland citizen support for Hong Kongers, and the “vocational training camps” of Xinjiang, national stability in the aftermath of the outbreak is more achievable than critics believe. The Party will “root out corruption” by placing sufficient blame on local Wuhan government officials and come out stronger and more powerful when the coronavirus is under control, regardless of the economic turmoil.
After Li succumbed to the virus on February 7, 2020, social media netizens were calling for freedom of speech and apologies from the Wuhan government, using hashtags such as #武汉政府欠李文亮医生一个道歉 (Wuhan government owes Dr. Li Wenliang an apology)—all of which were and are being censored.[xx] This almost instantaneous censorship shows the government’s refusal to allow anyone to be a martyr and its intolerance of any potential discourse.
Efforts to censor criticism continue as the government removes negative articles and orders the state media outlets to provide more upbeat and positive reports while focusing reporting on those who have recovered from the virus and the Party’s diligent efforts during the crisis.[xxi] This type of targeted reporting and strategic propagandizing is just the beginning of China’s efforts to paint itself as the savior of the epidemic.
The Party Will Be The Hero
Some critics are hoping for a wave of public anger and a collapse of Party support because of the government’s response in Wuhan and then, ultimately, regime instability. This will not happen. The government’s authoritative control of the population’s opinion is too robust and adaptive. State media refers to the virus outbreak as a “People’s War” (人民战争) and continues to urge the entire nation to mobilize and fight the virus.[xxii] In addition to shaping public opinion, state media has also ordered government officials’ compliance with Beijing’s instructions while ominously noting that any failure or deviation from the Party line will be severely punished.[xxiii] A CCP Vice Premier also called for maximum prevention efforts during the “wartime conditions” of the outbreak.[xxiv] Even Xi Jinping himself reemerged on state media, after keeping a low public profile during the first several weeks of the outbreak, wearing a face mask and spurring on the people’s “total war” (总体战) against the outbreak.[xxv] The unifying and revolutionary rhetoric transmitted through the state media portrays a whole-of-government effort personally led by Xi Jinping and the Party.
In addition to nationalistic propaganda, the government is tightening control, and major social media outlets are now under “special supervision” by the Cyberspace Administration of China.[xxvi] And this is only the beginning. The Chinese government continues using the media to illustrate the efforts of the Party in leading the battle against the virus.
In the aftermath, the Party will assign blame to a few “corrupt” people; efforts to do so are already underway, most notably with Beijing firing Hubei province and Wuhan city officials and sending in its premier anti-corruption agency, the National Supervisory Commission.[xxvii] Once sufficient blame is disseminated, the CCP will continue its fervent nationalistic propaganda and hail itself as the hero who saved China from the latest great enemy: the coronavirus disease of 2019.
[i] World Health Organization, Novel Coronavirus(2019-nCoV) Situation Report – 30, World Health Organization, February 19, 2020, https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200219-sitrep-30-covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=6e50645_2; National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China, “Feb 19: Daily briefing on novel coronavirus cases in China,” National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China, February 19, 2020, http://en.nhc.gov.cn/2020-02/19/c_76658.htm.
[ii] Joe McDonald, “China locked down 50 million people and has to keep them fed,” AP News, January 30, 2020, https://apnews.com/ae3b771d965a635e438cfdeeedb62b71.
[iii] Chris Buckley, et al. “As Virus Spreads, U.S. Temporarily Bars Foreigners Who’ve Visited China,” New York Times, January 31, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/31/world/asia/coronavirus-china.html.
[iv] Mikey Campbell, “Two more Apple Stores closed in China due to coronavirus concerns,” Apple Insider, January 29, 2020 https://appleinsider.com/articles/20/01/29/two-more-apple-stores-closed-in-china-due-to-coronavirus-concerns.
[v] Niraj Chokshi, ”3 Major U.S. Airlines Suspend China Flights Over Coronavirus,” The New York Times, January 31, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/31/business/china-flights-suspended.html
[vi] Bloomberg News, “Coronavirus: These Countries, Airlines Restrict Travel to China,” Bloomberg, February 2, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-02-02/coronavirus-these-countries-airlines-restrict-travel-to-china.
[vii] Jack Ewing, Neal E. Boudette, and Geneva Abdul, “Virus Exposes Cracks in Carmakers’ Chinese Supply Chains,” The New York Times, February 4, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/04/business/hyundai-south-korea-coronavirus.html.
[viii] Dion Rabouin and Joann Muller, The global economic threat of the coronavirus,” Axios, February 3, 2020, https://www.axios.com/coronavirus-global-economic-threat-c7eeac4a-c2a4-4be2-9815-45ae7af117e5.html.
[ix] Shibani Mahtani, “In Hong Kong, coronavirus brings panic— and fresh fury toward the government,” The Washington Post, January 30, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/in-hong-kong-coronavirus-brings-panic–and-fresh-fury-toward-the-government/2020/01/30/bb1f5b6c-4306-11ea-99c7-1dfd4241a2fe_story.html.
[x] Marcus Richard Keogh-Brown, Richard David Smith, “The economic impact of SARS: How does the reality match the predictions?” Science Direct 88, no. 1 (October 2008): 110-120, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthpol.2008.03.003.
[xi] Chris Buckley, et al. “As Virus Spreads, U.S. Temporarily Bars Foreigners Who’ve Visited China.”
[xii] International Monetary Fund, “GDP based on PPP, share of world,” International Monetary Fund, https://www.imf.org/external/datamapper/PPPSH@WEO/OEMDC/ADVEC/WEOWORLD/CHN?year=2020.
[xiii] Seth Borko, “Two Decades of Outbound Travel Visualized: New Skift Research
,” Skift, June 14, 2019, https://skift.com/2019/06/14/two-decades-of-outbound-travel-visualized-new-skift-research/.
[xv] Agence France-Presse, “A man lies dead in the street: the image that captures the Wuhan coronavirus crisis,” The Guardian, January 31, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/31/a-man-lies-dead-in-the-street-the-image-that-captures-the-wuhan-coronavirus-crisis.
[xvi] Chris Buckley and Steven Lee Myers, “Chinese Officials Race to Contain Anger Over Virus,” The New York Times, January 27, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/27/world/asia/china-coronavirus-social-media.html.
[xvii] Nicholas Kristof, “Coronavirus Spreads, and the World Pays for China’s Dictatorship,” The New York Times, January 29, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/29/opinion/coronavirus-china-government.html.
[xviii] Yaxue Cao, “In late Dec a Wuhan doctor said in a WeChat group that there were 7 cases of SARS connected to the seafood market. He was then scolded by the party disciplinary office, and made to sign a “I’m wrong” statement w police. He’s still in critical condition…” Twitter, January 27, 2020, https://twitter.com/YaxueCao/status/1221769811858010112.
[xix] Shannon Tiezzi, “Wuhan Whistleblower Doctor Dies of Coronavirus,” The Diplomat, February 7, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/02/wuhan-whistleblower-doctor-dies-of-coronavirus/.
[xx] Jane Tang 唐家婕, “At the meantime, #武汉政府欠李文亮医生一个道歉# (Wuhan gov owes lee an apology)is trending on Chinese social media Weibo at 9:40 Am ET,” Twitter, February 6, 2020 9:45 AM, https://twitter.com/ccjanetang/status/1225430289813512192; Shannon Tiezzi, “Wuhan Whistleblower Doctor Dies of Coronavirus.”
[xxi] Raymond Zhong, “China Clamps Down on Coronavirus Coverage as Cases Surge,” The New York Times, February 5, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/05/world/asia/china-coronavirus-censorship.html.
[xxii] “Initiating a People’s War Against the Epidemic 打响疫情防控的人民战争,” People’s Daily, February 4, 2020, http://paper.people.com.cn/rmrb/html/2020-02/04/nw.D110000renmrb_20200204_4-01.htm.
[xxiii] “Rather Having Resources Prepared and Unused Than Having a Shortage 宁可备而不用，也要坚决防止短缺（权威发布),” People’s Daily, February 4, 2020, http://paper.people.com.cn/rmrb/html/2020-02/04/nw.D110000renmrb_20200204_1-02.htm.
[xxiv] CCTV-1, “Central Government Hubei Guidance Team: Controlling the Disease’s Origin with a Wartime Mentality 中央赴湖北指导组：以战时状态全力抓好源头防控,” February 6, 2020, CCTV, http://tv.cctv.com/2020/02/06/VIDEyE7YpatxfSkLS0oveodG200206.shtml?spm=C31267.PFsKSaKh6QQC.S71105.5.
[xxv] “Xi Jinping Emphasizes When Commanding Disease Control Efforts Against the Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia in Beijing: Resolutely Conquering the Comprehensive Defensive Battle in the People’s War Against the Outbreak Using Stronger Confidence, Will and Measures 习近平在北京市调研指导新型冠状病毒肺炎疫情防控工作时强调: 以更坚定的信心更顽强的意志更果断的措施坚决打赢疫情防控的人民战争总体战阻击战,” People’s Daily, February 11, 2020, http://politics.people.com.cn/n1/2020/0211/c1024-31580456.html; Yaxing Shen, Zhihui Deng, Zijie Song, “Analysis: How to Understand the President’s Concept of ‘Total War’ Against the Outbreak 解读：如何理解总书记提出的疫情防控’总体战’,” People’s Daily, February 12, 2020, http://politics.people.com.cn/n1/2020/0212/c1001-31583078.html.
[xxvi] “Cyberspace Administration Commands Relevant Local Cyberspace Administration Offices to Regulate and Punish Illegal Websites and Accounts According to the Law 国家网信办指导有关地方网信办依法查处违法违规网站平台及账号,” Cyberspace Administration of China, February 5, 2020, http://www.cac.gov.cn/2020-02/05/c_1582443270836195.htm.
[xxvii] Cissy Zhou and William Zheng, “Coronavirus: Heads roll in Hubei as Beijing’s patience runs out,” South China Morning Post, February 11, 2020, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3049937/coronavirus-hubei-province-health-officials-removed-over.