This article was first published on the ChinaChange web sith on March 6, 2020
On March 5, vice-premier Sun Chunlan inspected the Qingshan Kaiyuan community in Wuhan. It’s meant to showcase to the national and international audience Wuhan’s success in coronavirus control. But things went off script: she was greeted by residents who came out on their balconies shouting, “Fake! It’s all fake!” (Video clips from a social media group of Wuhan residents.)
A friend asked me: “I wouldn’t dare to believe the official figures. Are things really under control outside of Hubei?” I said, “From now on, they’ll have nothing but good news for you. Whether you believe it or not is up to you.”
Needless to say, the subject was China’s novel coronavirus epidemic, or more accurately, the Chinese Communist Party government’s control of the epidemic. Even more precisely, the topic of discussion is the Chinese government’s control of the epidemic information.
Like hundreds of millions of people in China, what this friend of mine wished to know was the truth of the epidemic situation. However, with the exception of patients and their families, most people get their knowledge of the outbreak from the media.
Many people later understood that, when the Chinese government declared “preventable and controllable” from the beginning without knowing the virus, it was not bragging unscripted; and it turns out that they were not talking about the virus, but us, including information publishers, communicators, and audiences of information, that is, the general public.
Where does China’s flippancy and confidence in calling for other countries to “copy its homework” come from?
Based on numbers reported by the Chinese Health Commission in the morning of March 4, the country added 119 confirmed cases and 38 deaths over the previous 24 hours. The number of new cases reached a record low, indicating that the epidemic is being brought under control. This is good news. But I can hardly celebrate the way many are doing across the strictly controlled social media environment, because the fact remains that there were nevertheless 119 people confirmed infected, 143 suspected of having the virus, and 38 people who succumbed to it. It’s difficult for me to accept this jubilation. More incredible is how the propaganda these days is patting China on the back for supposedly being the “class star” [in fighting the epidemic]. It beckons foreign countries to learn from China’s example like slow-witted students copying “homework” from the bright ones, ridiculing foreigners for “not even knowing how to copy our work.”
The epidemic around the world is getting worse. Official data shows that the total number of confirmed cases has exceeded 90,000 and the total death toll has reached nearly 3,100. But don’t forget that of the more than 90,000 confirmed cases, China accounted for 80,270, and of the nearly 3,100 deaths, 2,981 were in China.
By now we’ve known that health workers were aware of and reported cases of the deadly novel coronavirus early as December 2019. But the authorities responded with strict information control, a crackdown on whistleblowers, prohibiting genetic testing of virus samples, and organizing a mass banquet with tens of thousands of people to celebrate the Chinese New Year. In this period, tens of thousands were infected and thousands started on their journeys to the afterlife. A few days later, the Chinese government hurriedly implemented urban lockdowns, leading to a dearth of medical resources and basic supplies. How many people were cross-infected, how many people could not seek medical treatment, and how many other critically ill patients were abandoned and succumbed to their conditions?
Now the coronavirus is spreading rapidly from China to the rest of the world. Irrespective of how effective western countries’ response to the epidemic is, no government dares to deliberately cover-up information, prohibit genetic testing, or use the crisis as a cause for its annual self-glorification.
After things hit rock bottom, there’s only good news left
In the eyes of the Chinese government, disasters are never a bad thing. The People’s Daily website published a commentary today (March 4) with the lines “the harsh wind tests the strength of the grass, calamity tests the loyalty of a minister” and “It is in a turbulent world that a hero distinguishes himself.” These are another way of saying the Communist Party’s favorite phrase: “Our country thrives in disasters.” (“多难兴邦”)
To be precise, it is the Party that thrives in disasters. The commentary said: “From the flood rescue efforts in 1998 to the SARS battle in 2003 and the earthquake relief work in 2008, these great struggles, one after another, have taught us that the Chinese Communist Party is the backbone of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation.”
I say the commentator at the People’s Daily is being too modest. Since the establishment of the CCP regime in 1949, from the anti-rightist movement to the Great Leap Forward, from the Cultural Revolution and the Tangshan earthquake to the June 4 incident, which calamity failed to end up being a “glorious victory” achieved by the Party’s leadership? Whether it is a natural disaster that the CCP delays or bungles the early response to, or a man-made tragedy it causes, they can, and will, always be used to prove that the Party is the backbone of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation.
As with every disaster in China, after things hit rock bottom, there’s no bad news left, only good news. The deaths of tens of millions of Chinese [in the Great Leap Forward famine] and the nationwide social collapse [caused by the Cultural Revolution] made everything in the “reform and opening up” era seem like a great achievement. People can do business, they can go to school, they can migrate…… Such rights, all of which are taken for granted in normal countries, are somehow all gifts of the Party’s wise leadership when it comes to China.
The novel coronavirus epidemic is another opportunity for the CCP to sing its own praises. As of now, what the Party has handled in the most stable and orderly fashion, what is most “preventable and controllable,” is not a medical treatment, but propaganda and stability maintenance. Even with the epidemic at its worst, songs eulogizing the Party could be heard coming from the hospital wards. Although thousands of families are now forever bereft of their loved ones, and the number of deaths continues to rise, the Party cannot wait to celebrate its successes at the first sign that new cases are decreasing.
The People’s Daily commentary reads: “Under the strong leadership of the Party Central Committee if the masses are of one heart and one mind, there is no difficulty or obstacle that the Chinese people cannot overcome.” Seeing that this is the case, the Chinese should sit tight and wait for the endless stream of good news. The reopening of school is good news, and returning to work is good news. Xi Jinping will inspect Wuhan when the situation there is safer, gracing the city and his subjects with imperial majesty.
And should anyone have objections to raise, the new Internet Control Regulations that came into effect on March 1 will be at your service.
Chang Ping (长平) is a senior Chinese media professional and columnist. He currently resides in Germany.