Li Wenliang, the doctor who warned of a virus afflicting Wuhan before the Chinese health authorities were ready to admit its existence, died last week after being infected with the disease. His death sparked an outpouring of grief and anger among the Chinese public, a tidal wave of emotion that was quickly suppressed as authorities recognized that his passing risked creating a martyr and symbol of the Chinese government’s failings.
Li was an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital when he tried to warn colleagues about the virus at the end of last year. His internet posts were censored and he was detained by the police on New Year’s Day for “rumor-mongering.” He was released two days later after admitting to making “untrue statements” and promising to reflect on his mistakes. At the same time, the police and state media launched a campaign against spreading rumors. Li returned to work, treating the growing flood of patients and was soon infected himself.
He died last week and the internet lit up; references to his passing were viewed more than 270 million times on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter). Some admirers sought an apology for him from the Wuhan government, while others demanded freedom of speech, a hashtag that was soon deleted by censors and is now reportedly unsearchable on social media platforms.
Li’s death is especially poignant — he leaves behind a wife who is pregnant and a 5-year-old son — but his is just one of the more than 900 lives that has been lost to the deadly new coronavirus; hundreds, possibly thousands, more fatalities will follow. The economic cost continues to mount; when stock market losses are included, the sums have reached the trillions of dollars. The psychic costs — fear, uncertainty, suspicion — are incalculable.
Appalling and tragic as this crisis is, the Chinese government’s chief concern is the threat it poses to President Xi Jinping and the ruling Chinese Communist Party. The social contract between the party and the people has been a promise of greater prosperity and security in exchange for acceptance of CCP rule. The government’s response to this crisis has been anything but capable and Chinese lives are at risk as a result. That contract has been broken.
Worse still, it has been the prioritizing of party interests over those of the public that created this situation. When the disease was first observed, Wuhan officials were focused on ensuring that the new year rang in properly, with the right mood and celebrations, which included a provincial legislative session — nothing could be allowed to interfere with that — and a 40,000-family pot luck dinner that aimed to set a world record for communal dining. That mentality prompted the detention of Li and others and the suppression of information among Chinese — even though the World Health Organization was informed of the disease on Dec. 31.
Local officials have been slammed for mishandling the outbreak — heads will roll — but the most important question is how far up the CCP hierarchy blame will go. Since becoming general secretary of the CCP (the position that is the real source of his power) in 2012, Xi has reversed the trend toward consensual decision-making and consolidated power in a manner that recalls Mao Zedong. He chairs “leading small groups” that drive policy on key issues; he has directed an anticorruption campaign that, not coincidentally, purged opponents; he is referred to as “the people’s leader,” a title previously bestowed only on Mao. In keeping with that adulation, the CCP in 2018 abolished term limits on the presidency, a move that will allow Xi to stay in office past 2023 when his second term ends.
Yet, Xi kept a low profile in the first few weeks the outbreak was reported. He made no public appearances and vanished from important state media for a week in late January; when visible, he was assuring foreign visitors that things were under control. Instead, Prime Minister Li Keqiang, previously notable for a lack of authority and standing, was the face of the government’s response. It was Li who was dispatched to meet and direct doctors and officials at Wuhan, doing so in his capacity as head of the new leading small group established only days before to deal with the crisis.
While Xi is not a member of the group, he was credited with “entrusting” Li to handle the problem. (Li’s selection makes sense: In a previous post, he dealt with two health crises, one of which was the 2003 SARS incident that should have taught Beijing about trying to cover up disease outbreaks.)
There is a case to be made for the consolidation of power that goes beyond the mere veneration of Xi. Proponents insist that only a strong leader can govern a country as large and diverse as China, and indeed, since Xi has weighed in, the state has moved with speed and brutal efficiency, going from denial to a virtual war footing. Cities with millions of residents have been locked down and isolated. Door-to-door searches of every residence are being conducted in Wuhan. Hospitals have been built in days (with construction live-streamed on the internet). And rewards are being offered for reporting individuals who might be infected but refuse to see health officials.
But in this system, action only occurs when the supreme leadership makes a decision and provides direction. Until that crucial moment, local officials struggle with the fear of offending their superiors and often cover up bad news, allowing problems to fester and get worse.
This is ultimately a fight between technocrats and ideologues, a struggle between those who recognize a problem for what it is and address it on its merits and those who view it through a prism that subordinates practical concerns to those of politics. This battle has been waged since the founding of the People’s Republic of China — it has been called the central tension of China’s modern history — but China has no monopoly on tunnel vision or misplaced priorities. Politicians everywhere disparage or dismiss science and “objective analysis” when it does not confirm their beliefs or when it challenges their preferred outcomes. Whether the issue is a tax proposal or environmental policy — climate change is a grim example — loyalty is increasingly preferred to expertise.
Japan is not immune to this disease. While the March 11, 2011, triple catastrophe was the product of extraordinary events compounded by mismanagement and confusion, the government had for years prioritized preferred outcomes over hard science in its nuclear power policy, which contributed to and magnified the eventual crisis.
Rarely do politicians welcome bad news, but genuine leadership encourages such reporting, especially when it challenges government policies and priorities. The people of China, and especially the residents of Wuhan, are paying a high price for their government’s misguided priorities — some, like Li Wenliang, have made the supreme sacrifice. The question now is whether the Communist Party will learn from this grievous episode or whether it will revert to old habits: denial and distraction.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”