The Outbreak of the Coronavirus and the Chinese Government’s Slow Response6 min read

Julia Gilstrap

Dr. Penar

Comparative Campaigns and Elections

02.14.20

The Outbreak of the Coronavirus and the Chinese Government’s Slow Response

Blog Post #1

First officially reported in Hubei province in the city of Wuhan around the Lunar New Year, on January 20th, 2020, but believed to have first occurred in early December of 2019, the coronavirus is a pneumonia-like upper respiratory illness that had killed thousands since its outbreak. The timing of this reported outbreak has proven disastrous for many. Mass travel for the holiday coincided with a regional quarantine attempting to contain the outbreak found many stranded, unable to travel back home. The mass quarantine immobilized millions of people within Hubei province and the city of Wuhan, with a population of 11 million alone (Rabin 2020). In order to better contain the contagion and get a firmer handle on the situation, the Chinese government officially extended the national holiday for a number of days (BBC, NA). However, many citizens did not return to work directly following the extending holiday, streets are unnaturally empty throughout mainland China and there are fewer citizens frequenting public spaces like trains or parks due to fear of the illness (BBC, NA).

Transportation and travel have been restricted throughout China due to the outbreak of coronavirus. At first, restricted areas were limited simply to where health officials understood to be ground zero of the contagion – the city of Wuhan and the surrounding province of Hubei (Wong et al. 2020). However, with increasing understanding about the levels of contagion this illness poses, more and more areas of China are coming under increased scrutiny. Chinese mobile phone operators have paired with the government to better track human movements throughout the country. According to the New York Times, “mobile phone owners in China get their service from one of three state-run telecommunications firms, which this week introduced a feature for subscribers to send text messages to a hotline that generates a list of provinces they have recently visited” (Wong et al. 2020). Some government run services such as train stations require passengers to comply to these demands before allowing passengers on or off. Information gathering at places of transportation is done city by city, as well, with some requiring passengers to fill out detailed forms regarding their health and government ID numbers (Wong et al. 2020). Participates receive a confirmation via text and are required to show this confirmation before entering new municipalities (Wong et al. 2020). Furthermore, citizens must undergo required temperature checks by medical professionals before entering public spaces or returning to their apartment blocks (Wong et al. 2020). If they do not pass the mandatory temperature checks, citizens can be detained or removed against their will to hospitals for treatment (Wong et al. 2020).

Discrimination from both within and abroad have affected Chinese citizens, as fears of the illness have swept the globe. International travelers have been extradited out of Hubei province and greater China as a whole. Major airlines have cancelled flights to certain areas within China and… Because Chinese national identification cards list a citizen’s hometown, citizens originally from Hubei province and especially Wuhan have faced added scrutiny regarding their travel history and occasionally outright discrimination from fellow Chinese nationals (Wong et al. 2020).

As more information emerges regarding the growing crisis, criticism that the Chinese government attempted to downplay the dangers of the illness has begun to mount. Officials have come under fire for their handling of the crisis there, accused of rounding up sick citizens without providing proper care or notifying family members (Wong et al. 2020).  Recently, the death of a doctor who was one of the first to raise the alarm to fellow healthcare professionals has sparked anger and grief at party officials (Yuan 2020). The doctor, Li Wenliang, was apparently silenced by the police after speaking out about the burgeoning medical crisis that at the time of his death had claimed the lives of hundreds. Dr. Li died after contracting the illness (Yuan 2020). There has been speculation that government officials withheld vital medical information that would have halted or at least slowed the spread of the contagion due to political considerations (Buckley, Myers 2020). Claims that the government suppressed information due to upcoming “annual congresses” in January are damning, as the first serious warnings of the illness emerged in late December, a full month before officials were forced to acknowledge how formidable the threat really was (Buckley, Myers 2020). It is unclear how credible these claims are, however, as the secrecy surrounding the disease could have simply been a way the Chinese government wished to secure their hold on information over their own population and international observers. The New York Times damningly writes, “At critical moments, officials chose to put secrecy and order ahead of openly confronting the growing crisis to avoid public alarm and political embarrassment” (Buckley, Myers 2020). However, there is little likelihood that personal anger felt by Chinese citizens across the nation will translate into political accountability.

The powerful Communist Party often has little to fear from its massive populous, having been in power since 1921. The sole governing party on mainland China – and for all intents and purposes, the sole party in general – the Chinese Communist Party exerts a near unbreakable control over the citizenry with little worry over electoral censor or political repercussions. Furthermore, due to iron control the Party exerts over its own members, the Party is able to dictate the career paths of promising political figures (Myers 2020). In order to contain the political damage already wrought by the failed containment of the illness and the public outcry after the death of Dr. Li, General Secretary Xi Jinping removed the top two officials within the Hubei region (Myers 2020). Their replacements are political sweethearts in the eyes of Communist Party’s leadership. The ousted governor of Hubei province was once considered a political up-and-comer by the Chinese Party establishment as well, but due to the outbreak of coronavirus and the structure of the Chinese Communist Party, he was simply the biggest sacrificial lamb to Xi Jinping’s continuing hold on power in China (Myers, 2020).

To assuage concerns of the public, national figures such as Xi Jinping have been making publicity tours, pledging their support to those working to contain the disease and commending them for their patriotic actions during a time of need (Myers 2020). Time will tell whether Xi Jinping’s iron grip on political power will be able to weather this storm without further political chess pieces lost as the coronavirus continues to take its toll in China.

Works Cited

Buckley, Chris, Steven Lee Myers. “As New Coronavirus Spread, China’s Old Habits Delayed Fight.” New York Times, New York Times. Feb. 7, 2020.

Myers, Steven Lee. “China Ousts 2 Party Officials Amid Outrage About Coronavirus Response.” New York Times, New York Times. Feb. 13, 2020.

Myers, Steven Lee. “‘Let’s Not Shake Hands’: Xi Jinping Tours Beijing Amid Coronavirus Crisis.” New York Times, New York Times. Feb. 10, 2020.

N/A. “Coronavirus: Beijing orders 14-day quarantine for returnees.” BBC. Feb. 14, 2020.

Rabin, Roni Caryn. “Huge Shelters for Coronavirus Patients Pose New Risk, Experts Fear.” New York Times, New York Times. Feb. 11, 2020.

Wong, Gillian, et al. “Coronavirus Live Updates: China Tracks Travelers From Hubei.” New York Times, New York Times. Feb. 14, 2020.

Yuan, Li. “Widespread Outcry in China Over Death of Coronavirus Doctor.” New York Times, New York Times. Feb. 7, 2020.

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