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Has the Coronavirus Reached Its Peak in China?
Though the number of new cases has dipped, China’s health care system is still under significant strain.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly China Brief. The highlights this week: What to make of the apparent slowdown in new coronavirus cases, hundreds of people remain in quarantine on cruise ships, and President Xi Jinping makes a major public appearance.
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New Virus Cases Are Slowing, but China’s System Is Straining
The number of new coronavirus infections in China has dipped over the last few of days, but it’s unclear whether this is the result of containment measures taking effect or a statistical inaccuracy: There could be a backlog of diagnostic test kits from the weekend. The decision by Chinese authorities, against World Health Organization guidelines, to eliminate cases where asymptomatic victims test positive has caused concern. The virus remains effectively the only story in China, with more than 1,100 deaths confirmed and nearly 45,000 cases.
Though China is nominally back at work, few are in the office. Lockdown measures are extended daily, with many cities closely monitoring compound residents and imposing exit and entry requirements. Schools and universities are holding classes online. These restrictions aren’t likely to end this month and perhaps not even before April. Flights to China have been dramatically reduced. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing has encouraged nonemergency staff to leave, ordering mandatory evacuation of family members under 21.
Is containment working? The number of new virus cases outside of Hubei province, where the outbreak began, has diminished over the last week. It’s unclear whether containment is working or cases are going unconfirmed. Doctors in Hunan, Hebei, and Jiangxi provinces, speaking by phone or mobile chat, said this week that their hospitals were holding several dozen patients in quarantine but there was a shortage of the kits required to test them.
Strained system. As hospitals struggle to deal with the virus, the health care system in China has been put under extreme strain. From dialysis to food poisoning to heart attacks, it’s increasingly difficult for patients to see a doctor. It can take hours to get through on the emergency number in Hubei, and other cities are seeing serious delays. If containment works, the secondary death toll could exceed the number of those who die from the virus directly.
What We’re Following
Cruise ship quarantines. The coronavirus is spreading abroad the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship stuck in harbor in Yokohama, Japan, with quarantined passengers and crew confined below decks in cramped conditions. The Japanese government’s handling of the case has been odd: It has kept those with the coronavirus inside the ship instead of transferring them to safer quarantine on land and failed to produce enough test kits for the passengers. Another cruise ship, the Westerdam, left Hong Kong on Feb. 1 and has been forbidden port in five countries, despite not having any confirmed virus cases on board. It has been permitted to disembark in Cambodia.
Xi resurfaces. Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first public appearance for nearly a week on Monday, touring Beijing in a mask. The move coincided with a renewed emphasis on his role as the leader of the “people’s war” against the coronavirus epidemic and reminders of the central role of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “with Xi Jinping at the core”—a repeated propaganda phrase. Xi still hasn’t visited Wuhan, putting his own credibility as a leader on the line. That raises the stakes in the propaganda battle as well as on the front lines, as the failure to contain the virus will now look like a central CCP failure.
Smoggy weather. Despite many factories being shut down or production reduced, a wave of smog has swept major cities across the country, including Beijing, Tianjin, and Wuhan itself. The air pollution could be a result of coal usage for heating homes—especially with people stuck inside—or from straw-burning in the countryside. Either way, it’s bad news for containing the coronavirus: Smog weakens the lungs, irritates eyes, and can contribute to the spread of the disease.
Citizen journalists disappear. Two citizen journalists monitoring the situation in Wuhan, Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin, have disappeared—reportedly detained by police. The arrests come as the government cracks down on independent coverage of the virus—which is expressly forbidden—and takes a much harder line in maintaining official propaganda.
Tech and Business
Energy hit. Oil demand has been pummeled by the coronavirus, with OPEC slashing its forecasts for the year. That trend is likely to spread throughout the increasingly China-dependent energy sector, with the outbreak described as a “black swan” by one expert. As with commodities, if the domestic economy can stagger back to its feet by March, the impact may be contained. If the country remains on lockdown until April or later, all bets are off for the year.
Constant monitoring. The police surveillance tools first rolled out in Xinjiang for use against the Uighur population are now being deployed to control and monitor China’s entire population during the virus outbreak. The technology includes QR codes that have to be scanned to enter or exit buildings and tracking of infected citizens through their WeChat payments. It’s worth remembering that 450 million people or more in China remain offline, meaning data networks don’t always translate to the countryside.
In rural areas, though, carceral methods have been used for control for decades. Many villages have forcibly imposed quarantines for people from Hubei province, even if they’ve had no contact with the region for months or years. The loudspeaker towers usually used for CCP propaganda broadcasts are now blaring information about the virus.
Speeding up departures. Firms across the global economy have been hit by the inability of Chinese factories to return to work. On the ground in Beijing and Shanghai, many foreign firms have pulled personnel out of China because of the virus. The trade war had already created some departures, but the coronavirus may seal the deal or give firms an extra kick to get out.
What We’re Reading
“Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear,” by Xu Zhangrun
This article, published by the dissident professor Xu Zhangrun and painstakingly translated by Geremie Barmé, is a dense but searing indictment of the CCP system and its handling of the coronavirus, complete with a dozen different ways to indirectly refer to Xi (“the core,” “the leader,” “the one who must be obeyed”). Xu is in an extremely risky situation, and this article is strikingly brave: He may well be in exile soon, at best.
Western-style houses are relatively rare in Chinese cities. The majority of residents live in apartment blocks contained within residential compounds, or xiaoqu, originally built in the Soviet model. In some ways, the xiaoqu reproduce the traditional walled homes of wealthy Chinese rich on a vast scale, with numerous residents instead of one sprawling family and their servants. The compounds vary greatly in size, holding a few dozen people or a few thousand, and they tend to contain shops, swimming pools, restaurants, and even police stations. The xiaoqu also have their own security—critical during the coronavirus epidemic—and limited points of entry and exit, making monitoring the population inside easier.
That’s it for this week.