There seems to be no end in sight to the spread of pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus. Can the administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping bring this situation under control? Its capability for crisis management has been put to the test.
In a meeting of the Communist Party’s supreme leadership, the Xi administration expressed a view that it needs to “improve the capability to cope with [the crisis] by addressing the weak points and shortcomings that have emerged from the response to the [outbreak].” The administration has also been examining the responsibility of senior local government officials and others, as well as disciplining them.
It is unusual for the Communist Party-led regime to acknowledge faults in its governance. Although the Xi administration did not go as far as to acknowledge its own responsibility, the view apparently indicates a sense of crisis that the situation could deteriorate if left unchecked.
It is clear that there were problems in China’s initial response to the virus. In Wuhan — the capital of Hubei Province and the epicenter of the outbreak — the number of patients with pneumonia of an unknown cause increased in December last year, but it was not until the end of the year that the municipal government announced such a development.
A local doctor who had sounded an alarm on social media before the city’s announcement was reprimanded by local authorities for “spreading false information.” The doctor later died after becoming infected with the virus.
It was not until Jan. 20 that Xi announced the country-wide response to the outbreak. Even though his government took the drastic measure of sealing off Wuhan, which has a population of 11 million, it failed to keep up with the rapid pace of the outbreak.
Questions were also raised over China’s response in 2003 to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). It took about three months for Beijing to reveal the outbreak, drawing international criticism for its concealing of the truth, among other concerns. China did not take as long to reveal the coronavirus outbreak this time, but it cannot be said that Beijing has fully learned the lessons from the SARS epidemic.
Even though most patients infected with the coronavirus are concentrated in China, overseas experts have pointed out that there are few detailed reports on symptoms that can be used to help with treatments. China must thoroughly disclose information and promote the sharing of expertise.
It is essential for all countries and regions to cooperate in the establishment of an international framework to prevent a pandemic. Even in Taiwan, which is not a member of the World Health Organization (WHO), there are concerns about the outbreak of the coronavirus. China should change its stance of excluding Taiwan from an information-sharing framework.
In this latest outbreak, the Communist Party’s centralized administrative system and controls of speech have emerged as obstacles in the response to the crisis.
The Xi administration has suppressed dissent by strengthening surveillance using such tools as the internet and facial recognition technology. With Xi having concentrated power, there is a tendency for things not to move without his direction.
Such an authoritarian system conflicts with measures that a government should take when responding to an emergency, such as sharing information within the government, promptly releasing information and transferring authority to local governments. How will the Xi administration resolve this paradox?