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27 January 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:31pm

China’s slow response to coronavirus has shown the weakness of its centralised model

In a system where power is concentrated at the top, local officials are not incentivised to take decisive action. 

By Jessie Lau

In a nearly deserted market in Wuhan, the epicentre of the deadly coronavirus outbreak in China, 31-year-old Wan stands nervously among an array of masked faces waiting in line to purchase groceries. It’s the first time he has ventured outside his apartment since the eastern city, with a population of 11 million, was effectively quarantined after the spread of the mysterious virus that may have originated from a local market. Public transport has been shut down, daily life has ground to a halt, and medical supplies have become increasingly sparse.

As the number of confirmed cases worldwide approaches 3,000 and the death toll in China nears 80, the government has imposed an unprecedented lockdown spanning 15 cities with a combined population of nearly 60 million people. The outbreak and subsequent shutdown coincided with the Lunar New Year holiday, China’s largest annual celebration, a period when hundreds of millions of Chinese people would typically travel and host large gatherings.

“I’m really worried,” says Wan, a local teacher who was only able to obtain a mask through a friend with medical connections. “The entire economy has been shut and the consequences will be huge. I hope the crisis will be over soon, but really it could go on for months.”

The crisis is the latest in a series of defining challenges presented to Chinese President Xi Jinping and his administration during a period that has already been marked by ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, a trade war with the US, and the recent re-election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen over pro-China candidate Han Kuo-yu. While China has taken radical efforts to contain the spread of the virus and provided regular updates, voices both within and outside of the country have accused the government of covering up the initial outbreak – allegations reminiscent of the 2003 Sars epidemic when delays in reporting caused the disease to spread unchecked to 26 countries and kill nearly 800 people

China’s slow response to the initial outbreak is symptomatic of a governing system where power is increasingly centralised at the top and local officials are not incentivised to take decisive action when necessary. Despite identifying the first case on 8 December, Wuhan officials only introduced screening measures on 14 January and restricted information surrounding the disease in order to maintain stability during a series of annual government meetings. Since censorship was lifted after Xi last week ordered “resolute efforts to curb the spread”, the circulation of online messages from Wuhan hospitals appealing for medical equipment, videos of overworked doctors and dark memes on Chinese social media have triggered rare displays of public discontent, placing further pressure on authorities to reassure citizens that they are competently tackling the crisis.

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Li, a retail worker in her thirties from Wuhan, whose family is trapped in the city, expresses her disappointment and anger at the authorities. Her father is a doctor and continued practising without protections at the start of the outbreak as a result of the delay in reporting. “Nobody thought it was serious at the start. I’m a bit worried because if he begins to get sick, should they go to the hospital or not?” she says. “Part of the current situation [is] because of how they deal with it since the beginning. Everything they did was like very hasty…not responsible, and not efficient at all.”

Although the crisis may be perceived as a threat to the Communist Party’s legitimacy and control, in reality, the political ramifications for the central government both domestically and internationally are likely to be small. In China, state media has praised the level of transparency and the rapidity of the central government’s response throughout the crisis. Wuhan’s top government and party officials have also taken responsibility for the mishandling of the outbreak and offered their resignation on Monday. Public discontent – while significant – over the mishandling of the initial outbreak and concerns over the lockdown will be redirected by state media towards provincial-level authorities rather than Xi, says Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute. 

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Rather than address the systematic shortcomings inherent to centralised leadership, Xi and his immediate advisers will likely conclude that party control should be further tightened, Tsang says. World leaders are also unlikely to reassess policies towards China as a result of the crisis, he added. On Tuesday, the UK government is expected to allow Chinese technology company Huawei at least partial access to its 5G networks.

“The minute Xi Jinping said something, things were put into overdrive. That’s what people in China will be seeing and a lot will be made out of that. This ignores the reality that the system put in place by Xi is significantly responsible for the crisis arising at the very start,” Tsang says. “[Xi’s measures] show how much control he has and how potentially destructive it can be, but will not change the way we engage with China.”

In the stricken city, Wan remains concerned about the health and safety of both himself and loved ones. A few of his friends have developed flu-like symptoms, with one visiting five hospitals in an attempt to be diagnosed and another waiting five hours to see a doctor. Yet Wu doesn’t blame local officials for how the situation has developed and instead wants to focus on moving forward. “After all, if it were me I would have been scared to report it as well,” Wan says. “Their careers are now definitely over.”

Jessie Lau is a freelance journalist from Hong Kong (@_laujessie)