- While blame for the epidemic cannot be pinned solely on the government’s attempts to control and manipulate information, its heavy-handed approach has further eroded public trust. Beijing should beware the high price of an authoritarian regime
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, Chinese social media users, Western media commentators and news reports have strongly criticised the Chinese government's handling of the crisis. The consensus seems to be that censorship is to blame for the outbreak.
Some people point their fingers directly at China's authoritarian political system for its inability to handle such a public health crisis. Is authoritarianism really to blame?
One of the earliest warnings was sounded on December 30 by Dr Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at the Wuhan Central Hospital, who told his medical school classmates that there had been seven cases of a virus similar to severe acute respiratory syndrome.
After his message was leaked and circulated online, he was hauled up before local police for spreading rumours and warned about the consequences of causing social instability. He had to sign a letter promising not to do it again.
As the epidemic got out of control, it became clear that the authorities in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, were late in warning people about the infections. Chinese social media users did not hesitate to voice their opinion.
While some defended officials' decision to censor information about the unconfirmed Sars-like outbreak, many others criticised them for trying to hide the information and missing the window for early prevention.
In another blow to local authorities, Li later contracted the coronavirus and died on February 6. Local officials tried to delay the release of the news until late at night, hoping most people would be asleep. But their clumsy effort did not succeed.
With the news of his death, his treatment by the authorities also came to light. It triggered an even bigger public outcry. Many called for the loosening of information controls and for freedom of speech.
How Li Wenliang's death sparked Chinese demand for freedom of speech
What were the censors thinking when they tried to block information during an apparent public health crisis? One explanation is that they did not at first grasp the seriousness of the problem. There seems to be some truth in this, particularly when there was no clear evidence about human-to-human spread during the early days.
Yet evidence shows local authorities were not oblivious to the problem. On the same day that Li posted his message about the seven patients in his hospital, the Wuhan health commission issued an urgent notice warning of the emergence of a novel coronavirus and proposing measures against its spread.
The authorities' understanding of the virus might not have been correct in terms of human-to-human spread, but they were alarmed.
Another explanation for the censorship is that officials believed the virus could be controlled without causing public panic during the Lunar New Year season or interrupting the annual legislative meetings across the country.
Public panic and an interruption of the local People's Congress meetings could threaten economic growth, social stability and even national security, which is a top priority for the government.
Some Wuhan officials were probably overly confident that China's omnipotent authoritarian political system could handle any crisis.
While we need more evidence to conclude that censorship was indeed to blame for the coronavirus spread, the more apparent damage has been the breakdown in public trust. People watched in horror as the number of infected people climbed while officials were busy delaying the news of Li's death.
The mourning of Li's passing turned into a public campaign against government ineptitude. Chinese social media was flooded with posts paying tribute to Li, and also sarcastic comments on local officials' ignorance, incompetence, corruption and arrogance.
The public outburst is a reaction to the tightened censorship in the name of social stability and national security since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.
Some criticised Xi for his style of tight control. Yet others called for the protection of freedom of speech as a basic right of citizens. Reading these posts, one gets the impression that popular support for the government has dropped significantly.
Coronavirus: what Xi fears most is people turning on the party
There are reasons to believe that the authoritarian Chinese government is capable of fighting the crisis and maintaining public support. It has built a 1,000-bed hospital in record time, sent tens of thousands of medical personnel to the affected regions and quarantined tens of millions of people.
It has been using the state-controlled media to demonstrate its strong leadership in curbing the virus, developing new treatment methods, boosting public morale and promoting national unity. Many Chinese who watch the official network news may still believe in the government. Netizens may not.
In the meantime, the government has also shown its ability to quickly respond to public opinion. It sent a team from Beijing to investigate the handling of Li's case; provided financial compensation to Li's family, after his death was ruled a workplace injury; dismissed local officials who appeared incompetent in the public eye, and; announced new policies to supervise local government agencies.
These measures may assuage public anger. It doesn't seem likely that the authoritarian regime will collapse any time soon as a result of its botched handling of the virus outbreak.
Authoritarianism is a double-edged sword. Political scientist Charles Lindblom described such a system as "strong thumbs, no fingers". It is capable of national mobilisation, rapid resource allocation, and implementing large-scale projects, but incapable of managing things at the micro level. Indeed, it can build a 1,000-bed in 10 days with its big thumb but, with no fingers, it is unable to handle a doctor's early warning of the virus spread.
Wenfang Tang is head and chair professor of the Division of Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.
Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.查看原始文章