THERE IS A lot more at risk from the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak than the health of thousands of infected people, critical though that is.
Top-level authorities have now moved swiftly and decisively to contain the outbreak, staking the Party’s reputation for purposeful social management for the public good — one of its justifications for its monopoly on power — on a successful outcome. President Xi Jinping told CCTV earlier this week that ‘people’s lives and health should be given top priority and the spread of the outbreak should be resolutely curbed’. It was, he said, ‘extremely crucial’ that every possible measure was taken to combat the virus.
In that sense, he now ‘owns’ the crisis. Local officials may get blamed, demoted or sacked for being slow to ‘fess up to the outbreak initially, but failure to contain it will now fall squarely on the shoulders of Xi and central government.
The mishandling and initial cover-up of the SARS epidemic in 2002-03, so roundly criticised internationally, will be fresh in the minds of officials high and low. This time the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, once the initial slowness of Wuhan municipal authorities to recognise and respond to a potential public health emergency had passed.
Doctors followed a standard protocol for detecting new viruses, and, taking advantage of new techniques, quickly mapped its genome and passed the details to international health authorities. The sharing of information internationally has allowed timely monitoring and treatment of arrivals abroad of travellers from Wuhan. As a result, at this point, the outbreak is a Chinese, not a global emergency.
Domestically, central government took control of responding to the outbreak from municipal governments. A coordinating team was set up at the top level. Transport to, from and within Wuhan and nearby Huanggang was shut down, effectively locking down cities of 11 million and 7 million people respectively. In all, eight cities around Wuhan have had restrictions on free travel imposed.
World Health Organization officials called the quarantining of whole cities an unprecedented response to a public health crisis. Few other if any systems of government would have the capacity to implement such abrupt and draconian measures.
Whether such a cordon sanitaire, so to speak, will prove effective, given that an infected person may have passed on the infection to another before showing symptoms themselves of being ill, is yet to be seen. The mass travelling of the Lunar New Year holiday will provide an exacting test.
With public gatherings and events cancelled as well, there will, self-evidently, be significant localised economic impact. Managing that will also be a repetitional challenge for the Party, but one relatively easily met with money.
As with the H7N9 avian flu virus in 2013, widespread internet use domestically and the demands of the international community are likely to force transparency on this issue. The more significant political challenge for Xi will be how an authoritarian system, made more authoritarian by his reforms, copes in a case in which such transparency is essential for an effective response.
The press has now been allowed uncommon freedom to report the outbreak. Where the boundaries of that easing of censorship lie are also yet to be tested and only likely to be so cautiously. The primacy of the official narrative will not be ceded.
The People’s Daily underlines the bigger question at stake: how China handles the outbreak, it said in an editorial, ‘is a test for China’s governance system and capability’. But it will be a test of more than just governmental competence and the health services ability to cope. The outbreak is revealing how surprisingly stretched are the resources of China’s hospitals.
It is still too early to know how widespread the social and political impact of the Wuhan coronavirus proves to be or how long-lasting, but the penalties for Xi and the Party for not passing this test will be significant both domestically and internationally. But so, too, will be the prizes for success.