Scholars' Blog

24 March 2020
Brian Wong
By Brian Wong

Coronavirus: amid the shrill, polarised criticism of China’s response, give credit where it’s due or risk missing important lessons

As the fallout from the Covid-19 outbreak in China reverberates around the world, at the core of heated debates lies the question over Beijing’s political response to the crisis.

Some have lauded the government for its efficiency and swiftness while others point out that the lack of accountability among local officials and a political culture that eschews transparency are to blame for the outbreak.

Distinctly alarming, perhaps, is the deep polarisation – along partisan and political lines – in the assessments of China’s record, and the eagerness to score political points through attacking or glorifying it.

Yet, one need not be an ideological critic of the Chinese regime to be significantly concerned with its early crisis management. When presented with evidence of a potential outbreak by individual doctors – whose complaints were drowned out by inertia and established structures – the lacklustre responses of bureaucrats clearly showed they had not learned the lessons of the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak.

Instead, they initially painted doctors such as Li Wenliang as pariahs and outliers, and clamped down on civilian discourse. Had the government and the world been alerted sooner, swifter and less-interventionist measures could easily have been taken.

Even if, as some say, Li lacked expertise in the subject, the correct strategy was to contact experts to investigate, rather than play down, the situation through hollow attempts at public mollification.

To defend these measures in the name of social stability would be to place excessive faith in Chinese bureaucrats and the public system: clearly, public scrutiny and pressure are necessary to keep them in check. Indeed, Beijing’s sacking of inept officials should have sent a loud and clear message that the failure to answer to people’s demands is not only unprofessional, but deeply immoral.

Fundamentally, the dearth of scientific and hygiene-minded thinking among senior local and provincial administrators created circumstances ripe for an epidemic – from the lack of wildlife trade regulation to a failure to uphold a public sense of hygiene, these are blunders for which the government, not the people, must be held responsible.

Yet it is equally important to give credit where it is due. Most media enjoy seizing on the above points to paint China as a monolithic, obstinate political bloc. But the central government’s later large-scale, systemic and efficiently coordinated response should be considered a model for the many countries struggling to contain the virus.

Unlike many other nations, China managed to seal internal and external movements of people, stifling the primary means of viral spread. Large-scale lockdowns and quarantines – despite drawing their fair share of critics – have secured at least an extended break in the country’s volume of cases.

Strictly enforced social distancing and government-mandated check-ups have heightened vigilance about personal and public health.

Through a centralised mobilisation and deployment of resources, sites have been established where patients are treated effectively.

Media campaigns have boosted public morale and fostered a sense of solidarity – even as they are criticised as dubious or excessive.

The figures are on China’s side – since early February, new cases have been falling, with the number of recovered patients rising and the death rate stabilised.

Of course, it is far too early to conclude with certainty that China’s containment measures have been successful, as the country gradually resumes economic operations over the coming weeks. Moreover, such gains have come at the expense of civil liberties, including privacy and freedom of association. Could less invasive or more humane measures have been adopted?

Could the regime have dialled down the social engineering and turned more to rectifying structural problems? Are there deeper questions to ask about the relationship between the local and central governments, and between people and the party? These are all relevant questions – but they are only legitimate if we give China credit where it is due.

The lack of nuance in critiquing China’s response to the outbreak is neither accurate nor helpful. It renders the Chinese public increasingly antagonistic towards what they perceive as “Western” and “imperialist” news sources bent on painting a biased picture of their country.

It also drowns out the potentially helpful insights the rest of the world could learn from China. Criticism without nuance discredits all legitimate condemnation of China’s public health regime by associating it with politically motivated attacks that seek only to reaffirm the value of Western liberal democracy. Debates on China’s institutions are well worth having, but not based on an incomplete, distorted understanding of reality.

Many of my peers at Oxford still see Covid-19 as comparable to the flu. Wearing a mask still leaves wearers vulnerable to and worse. Hand-washing is something the British government has meekly attempted to encourage.

Until recently, the United States was still severely lacking test kits and people had to pay for a test. The European Union – already strained economically and divided politically – is being swept by the tidal wave of infections. Many of these governments often portray Chinese governance as unjust: they may have a point, but they should not be too surprised to find that they, too, could learn an important lesson or two from Beijing.


About the author
Brian YS Wong is an MPhil (political theory) candidate at Wolfson College, the University of Oxford, and current Rhodes Scholar-elect for Hong Kong in 2020. This article was published on 24 March 2020 by South China Morning Post.