Oxford-style Debate: COVID-19 Epidemic as China’s ‘Chernobyl Moment’?

Statement: “The response to the COVID-19 epidemic will damage the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party”

Matej ŠimalčíkCentral European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS), Slovakia

Motion FOR the statement:

In late November 2019, first cases of novel coronavirus infection started appearing in the city of Wuhan. Since then, more than 81 000 people became infected and more than 3 000 people have died so far in China alone, the majority of them in the Hubei province where the pandemic broke out. 

While it is highly unlikely that the CCP will topple under the COVID-19 pressure, its internal legitimacy will be seriously damaged and cause further problems for the CCP down the line.

1. CCP’s late response challenges the basic premise of the social contract. The tacit agreement between the CCP and the Chinese society dictates that the Chinese people give up a portion of their civil rights and liberties in return for socioeconomic development and security. This promise was arguably broken when the CCP did not provide effective leadership at the beginning of the crisis, silenced whistleblowers, and destroyed evidence of the infection. Moreover, this situation has positioned two of CCP’s core interests against each other. 

The notion of core interests holds that the ultimate goals of the CCP are its self-preservation, protection of territorial integrity, and providing socio-economic development to the Chinese population. However, CCP prioritized its short-term approval by suppressing any information about the looming public health crisis. As a result, the virus was allowed to spread throughout the country (aided by the Chinese New Year migration) and, eventually, the globe.

This will be problematic for the CCP’s trustworthiness in the future when a new crisis emerges. Having experienced the CCP’s response (or lack thereof) during the COVID-19 crisis and previously during the SARS crisis in 2003, Chinese people will not be inclined to put their trust in the CCP leadership. 

2. Xi Jinping’s disappearance at the height of the crisis showed that CCP’s primary goal is self-preservation rather than the wellbeing of the population. At the height of the crisis, Xi Jinping disappeared from the public eye. Basically, all the major decisions on how to handle the outbreak were publicly announced by the Premier Li Keqiang. Whatever the reason for this swap in leadership roles at the time of crisis, Chinese people were left to wonder what happened to Xi Dada. 

Moreover, this will embolden the internal party opposition to criticize Xi Jinping over mishandling of the outbreak. This has already started to happen. Ren Zhixiang, Beijing property tycoon and a party member, who is known for scathing public criticism of Chairman Xi, has now decried Xi for being power-hungry and for silencing whistleblowers instead of working to prevent the spread of the virus. Economic fallout will embolden others within the party who are unhappy with the power-centralizing tendencies under Xi. 

3. Silencing of Li Wenliang has exposed the extent of CCP’s willingness to muzzle those highlighting flaws in Chinese governance. Li sent out a warning to fellow doctors about the looming danger of the COVID-19 epidemic already on 30 December 2019. Rather than causing a robust response from the authorities to prevent the infection from spreading, Li earned himself a reprimand from the officials for “making false comments”. Li himself succumbed to the illness and passed away on 7 February 2020. Following his death, hashtag #言论自由 (free speech) started trending on Chinese social media platforms.

While censoring party critics and whistleblowers is not unusual in today’s China, this instance differs in one crucial factor. Lin Wenliang’s silencing and death at the time of epidemic that could have been prevented has made it abundantly clear to the whole of Chinese society what are the consequences of zero governmental accountability. 

4. The initial mishandling of the epidemic by the CCP has energized China’s grassroots movement. Where the state has failed, the ordinary people had to fend for themselves and help each other. If the momentum persists, the COVID-19 grassroots movement has a potential to grow and transform into a wider social movement, a kind we have seen emerge in many countries before and which CCP inherently fears (much of the social control moves done by the party under Xi were motivated by its fear of ‘color revolutions’). 

5. China’s international PR blitz will backfire. In order to fend off international backlash against the CCP’s initial mishandling of the crisis, China has gone on an international (charm) offensive. This includes both producing malicious narratives about the origin of the virus, berating Western countries for not adopting sufficient measures, and selling protective gear to countries affected by the pandemic. This behavior will put two-sided pressure on the CCP. 

Propaganda drive will further alienate many foreign governments which are themselves facing domestic crises due to the virus. At the same time, presenting Chinese sales of protective gear and test kits as aid to more developed countries (albeit by now in worse situation compared to the one in China) will not bode well with Chinese netizens. CCP has already been criticized domestically for sending money abroad as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Sending vital supplies abroad while the epidemic is not yet fully under control in China (with a possible second wave incoming) is a PR nightmare in the making. 

6. Looming economic crisis will cause further deterioration of Chinese people’s’ trust in the regime. The dip in productivity due to massive quarantine measures has caused a dramatic fall in China’s economic output. Throughout January and February, industrial output recorded a 13.5% year-on-year decrease. The situation was even worse in retail and construction, with a 20.5% and 24.5% fall respectively. Coupled with the pre-existing structural flaws of the Chinese economy, the epidemic will most likely cause a protracted recession in China. This will put further pressure on the CCP, which it will not be able to cope with in the long-term. 

State-owned enterprises (SOEs), which are notoriously inefficient, will be under a lot of pressure to cope with the recession caused by the epidemic. If the government’s approach to SOEs up to now is any hint, they will be the major recipients of fiscal stimuli. As a result, the private sector (which accounts for some 60% of GDP) will not receive adequate support from the government. 

Furthermore, the Chinese economy is already heavily indebted. Its aggregate debt has surpassed 300% of GDP last year. The need to finance a robust stimulus package will further increase the debt levels.

This will have further implications for the CCP’s ability to deliver on the promise of economic growth. Stagflation is a possible outcome.

CCP will thus be in a precarious position and unable to secure its core interest of providing socio-economic growth. That is a serious liability for the overall legitimacy and survivability of the party. 

Alice RezkováAssociation for International Affairs (AMO), Czech Republic

Motion AGAINST the statement:

The past year has been marked by turbulent events in China: months of unrest in Hong Kong, Taiwanese elections with the success of the pro-independence government, the lowest economic growth in 30 years and a trade war with the United States.

One would think that it can not get worse. And yet, another perfect storm is here –  COVID-19. Is the coronavirus CCP’s ‘Chernobyl moment’? I argue that China will prove everyone wrong.

1. First of all, it seems that after almost three stressful months, China has managed to defeat the epidemic. It’s success was thanks to its devoted doctors, nurses and delivery boys, and all the 750 million people who were disciplined enough to accept some form of quarantine for quite a long time. In the beginning, there were some serious hiccups that enabled the virus to spread around China and eventually, around the whole world.

But Chinese authorities acted swiftly to correct their initial mistakes: built new hospitals in a few days, transported thousands of doctors and volunteers from around the country to the epicentre in Hubei, and put tens of millions of people under quarantine. WHO experts say that if China had reacted one week later there might have been 70 times more cases worldwide.

2. As other governments fight to contain the outbreak, the Chinese people can see that their government was not the only one in trouble.  COVID-19 is currently making its way to the rest of the world. And now it is the western world that seems to be truly struggling with the containment, repeating the Chinese mistakes that were so loudly criticized.

At the time of writing, Spain and Italy already have more dead patients than China has registered so far, and some other western countries are on a very similar path.

Even though there is still a lot of discontent with the government’s management of the crisis, the Chinese can finally feel quite safe at home as life gets back to normal, things get under control and the rest of the world is seemingly becoming chaotic.

3. The central government still seems to be seen in positive terms, with blame being shifted elsewhere in the system. Of course, people in China are angry right now. Who would not be? Many people around the world are reviling their governments for mismanagement of the crisis.

Yet, top leaders in Beijing have been able to redirect popular discontent regarding the initial outbreak toward lower-level officials, and thus spare their own skin. Local leaders in Hubei were sacked in an exemplary way, and Beijing quickly dispatched inspection teams to uncover missteps made at the beginning of the outbreak.

4. The party propaganda has managed to portray the response to the crisis as a manifestation of the “superiority” of the authoritarian regime and personal leadership of Xi Jinping. Even though Chinese President Xi Jinping’s absence in the beginning caused some consternation, and some damage control of his image was needed as a result, he is a leader who has consolidated extraordinary amounts of power. Xi’s main value proposition is that he can fix China’s problems, guarantee stability — whatever that means — and effectively deal with perfect storms like COVID-19.

Xi quickly learned that the narrative-control in Hubei and forced gratitude education would not get him anywhere, so he quickly switched to a different approach. During his trip to Wuhan, he appeared very humble, expressing his gratitude to everyone impacted by the disease. This was met with more positive reactions from the Chinese people and can be a new strategy for Xi and the Party propaganda in the future.

5. CCP is also using its victory over the virus as an opportunity to polish China’s global image as a responsible power. In stark contrast to the 2003 SARS crisis, when the CCP was criticized for sleeping behind the wheel, China has presented itself as a safe haven despite being the original epicentre of the pandemic, and it is now using its experiences to help other countries fight the coronavirus. We can expect to see more Chinese teams and supplies being sent to major crisis zones as they continue to emerge. The ‘New Health Silk Road’ is in the making.

6. During crises, the state expands to deal with a crisis and then remains at the new expanded level even after it fades away. Before the coronavirus outbreak, China’s digital government was already on a quite advanced level. As a disaster response, Chinese authorities have, among others, developed and deployed the Health Code (in cooperation with Ant Financial, a sister company of Alibaba). The app determines with green/red/yellow colour whether the user is, for example, allowed to take public transport or has to stay in quarantine.

Combined with the government’s database of travel history within China (linked to national identity card numbers) the Chinese government is endeavoring to implement a nation-wide tracking system in the name of virus containment. As people are worried about their health, the government will be allowed to impose tighter citizen control.

7. Sooner or later China will recover economically, moving the economy onto a new level. State-owned enterprises will play a key role in the post-outbreak stimulus. Xi has overseen the resurgence of Chinese SOEs, forcing mergers to create national champions in key sectors, including rail, nuclear and renewable energy and construction materials. SOEs will likely receive much-needed financing, given their connections to state-owned banks. And Beijing is pushing for more infrastructure investment to support the economy. Furthermore, as one of the first almost recovered economies, China can act as an important supplier in many industries.

Almost everyone in China had to drastically change their way of life during the epidemic. People in cities shopped, studied and met others online as many worked from home. Maybe this can be a new revolution for Chinese megalopolises that will trigger a much-needed change in lifestyle –  a greener, smarter and more sustainable lifestyle, which is the goal that the CCP still struggles to achieve.

Therefore, the likely outcomes of the coronavirus epidemic are not only that Chinese President Xi Jinping remains in power, but also that the Communist Party emerges bigger and stronger despite the current economic challenges.

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Alice Rezková
Alice Rezková is founder of the China Business Circle and Research Fellow of AMO Research Center.
Matej Šimalčík
Matej Šimalčík is Executive Director of the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, a think tank based in Slovakia. In his research, he focuses on Chinese foreign and security policy, strategic culture, territorial conflicts, and relations between China and Europe. He is a member of MapInfluenCE, a regional initiative aimed at monitoring China’s economic and political influence in Central Europe, where he acts as national coordinator for Slovakia.