China from the Year of the Rat to the Ox
by Lunting Wu
№ 25/2021 from Feb 23, 2021
The pandemic has revealed in China some under-discussed positive highlights and lessons which have implications for the liberal script.
Millions of households in China (and beyond) are celebrating the most important episode of the year—the Lunar New Year of the Ox. To commemorate, Beijing has taken pride in its successful handling of the pandemic, given that the spread of the virus had been effectively contained and social normality largely restored. Wuhan, the first epicentre of the outbreak, has been back to normalcy for months, starkly contrasting the bitter struggle that other countries have been experiencing for an extended period of time. Swift actions including construction of mobile hospitals and imposition of strict lockdown have impressed home and abroad. Internationally, from the mask exports on the outset of the pandemic to the current vaccine exports, Beijing is seeking to project its soft power, and has been touting the success of its very unique system. Against this backdrop, it seems that China triumphs over its western democratic counterparts during this unprecedented health crisis, with its state-led developmental model becoming increasingly alluring. However, reality casts doubts on such a concern in the West. The latest fourteen-country survey conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that negative opinions about Beijing have reached historic height in the Year of the Rat ever since the Center started the poll more than a decade ago, which is considered to be due to China’s bad handling of the COVID outbreak. Problematising whether China is a winner in this worldwide pandemic, this piece seeks to draw attention to some events or issues that have gone under-discussed, which may have implications for the liberal script.
The ongoing development of the pandemic—with an evolving focus on vaccine delivery and lockdown measures as well as on Beijing’s relative success—has diluted the importance of some significant yet concerning events at the inception of the crisis. We should not forget the saddening episode in which the Wuhan local police silenced and reprimanded Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist who first reported the unknown virus which later became known as COVID-19. Later, the exposure of this incident unleashed an influential nationwide criticism on the Internet, with tons of what would usually be identified as dissenting views and sensitive criticisms against the establishment circulating nearly uncensored throughout Chinese social media. In the face of this rare yet strong social backlash, the central government intervened with a discourse drawing a clear line between local government’s oversight and central authorities’ visions. Although the repercussions have been felt for more than a year now, neither local nor national reform has been made. Instead, the whole nation is still indoctrinated by the slogan “buxinyao, buchuanyao” (“do not believe in rumours, do not spread rumours”), which might lead to self-silencing or circumscription of free speech and information. Under this Zeitgeist, citizens are dissuaded from, and finally lost the initiative of, expressing diverse opinions. Although it may effectively prevent social panic in a pandemic, it is hardly sustainable in the long run.
Some may refer to cultural tightness to account for China’s effectiveness in combating the virus. Meanwhile, however, within China, there have been reports on discrimination against and social exclusion of the Hubei Province residents as well as COVID-19 patients. Hence, the fact that this cultural and social cohesiveness against an external threat causes such unintended consequence as internal discrimination (rather than empathy) merits further study, because, in a relatively liberal society where social norms are loose, such stigmatisation might not be that prominent.
Throughout the Year of the Rat, the epistemic and scientific community as well as civil society have played a pivotal role in responding to the pandemic. A high-level expert group was created, which mainly consisted of preeminent epidemiologists, health scientists, and public policy officials, to advise the CCP and the State Council, guide the subnational authorities, communicate with and inform the mass about the epidemic situation and relevant health measures via television or social media, and coordinate with international health community. It is the epistemic community that has determined the total lockdown of Wuhan and the launch of mask obligations. In addition, it has enacted a central communication and stabilising role with the public, while statesmen played a (temporary) supporting role. Experts were even invited to give individual online sessions with diplomatic missions and Chinese expats. Therefore, it is interesting to see how epistemic community functions under a technocratic/meritocratic regime vis-à-vis a crisis, particularly when its counterpart in the US has been viewed with mistrust by the Trump administration. Furthermore, it is observed that spontaneous volunteer groups have contributed to mutual aid and assistance to medical staff, that there has been a surge of NGOs to confront the epidemic, and that some synergy and empowerment have been seen between mobile Internet and NGOs.
The Lunar New Year kicked off with China seemingly performing better than its peers. Is it a winner? It is not so convincing when issues of fundamental freedom (of press and speech) are not fully tackled in the long run and there has been domestic social exclusion and discrimination. After all, it is the COVID patients and families that are bearing the pain. Beijing’s declining international image also shows that its own model is not so tempting towards liberal democratic regimes even during the pandemic. Is it a loser? It has nevertheless pulled almost the whole nation back to routine, with epistemic community and civil society occupying a primal role in the process. In short, we should draw on the past lessons and positive highlights as the pandemic continues to unfold in the Year of the Ox.
Lunting Wu is a Doctoral Researcher within the SCRIPT programme at Freie Universität Berlin, where he studies South American countries’ foreign policy regarding the Belt and Road Initiative.
 Pew Research Center (2020). Unfavorable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries. Available at <https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/10/06/unfavorable-views-of-china-reach-historic-highs-in-many-countries/> (last accessed 16.02.2021).
 Hu, M., and M. Sidel (2020) “Civil Society and COVID in China: Responses in an Authoritarian Society”, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Vol. 49(6) 1173–81.