For much of the Communist Party’s history, the overarching question in its elite circles has not been whether democracy or authoritarianism is more attractive, but which version of authoritarianism is best. As documented in research by Jonathan Stromseth, Edmund Malesky, and Dimitar Gueorguiev, there have always been two schools of thought: a more coercive model, and one based more on openness to and participation by citizens and elites alike. Xi Jinping is firmly in the coercive camp, but the coronavirus outbreak has become a tragic case study of what’s wrong with his method of governance.
China today is arguably the most repressive it has been since the period following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Xi has fostered a cult of personality; removed any semblance of opposition within the Communist Party; centralized power around himself; gutted civil society; jailed hundreds of human-rights, labor, feminist, and pro-democracy activists; and tightened control of social and traditional media. His answer for how to best to govern Chinese society: Control it. Dominate it.
A public-health crisis is exacerbated by such a government. Local officials in Wuhan and Hubei province, too scared to report bad news in their jurisdictions, were slow to act during the onset of the outbreak. Health-care workers and citizen journalists who tried to warn the public were censored and detained, including the heroic whistle-blower Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist who later died of the virus himself.
Citizens and health experts need good information, but most official statistics in China are unreliable. Chinese colleagues of mine whisper, based on past experience, that the government must be radically underestimating the number of deaths. Nobody really knows how many people have the virus, and even expert baseline estimates of its mortality rate are unreliable. Some observers are even looking to air pollution near crematoriums to try to deduce death totals.
These issues aside, Americans should be skeptical of any “coming collapse of China” predictions. The Communist Party has a well-defined playbook for handling the deadly crises that have arisen on its watch.
Step 1: Find a local official to take the blame. In political science, we often describe China’s governing system as one of “fragmented authoritarianism.” Responsibility for making and implementing policies is diffused across multiple levels of government. This structure allows for easy scapegoating in times of crisis. For the coronavirus, local officials in Wuhan and Hubei have been blamed for mishandling the outbreak. Jiang Chaoliang, the highest-ranking official in Hubei, recently resigned in disgrace.
Step 2: Respond aggressively, even excessively. When a crisis arises, the central government will take great pains to show that it cares. This is what the author Ian Johnson recently called “Actionism”—action for action’s sake. This response might come in the form of a new law, or visits by top officials to the affected area. Entire cities, roughly 50 million people, have been quarantined in response to the coronavirus. And on evening television, the news shows clips of cranes and cement mixers building whole hospitals in just a matter of days. (Of note: These machines have become internet celebrities in China).