After Virus Peak, Beijing Tries to Get Back on Track
China’s government is pushing citizens out of the house and back to work, as WHO says its coronavirus outbreak is slowing down.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly China Brief. The highlights this week: China’s government starts lifting lockdowns and pushing people to return to work as new coronavirus cases decline, the rest of the world prepares for a possible pandemic, and Chinese President Xi Jinping holds a massive conference call.
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WHO Says China’s Virus Outbreak Has Peaked
A World Health Organization (WHO) expert delegation that just returned from China claims that the coronavirus epidemic there has peaked, even as a global pandemic becomes a looming possibility. (WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has called the increase in new cases in other parts of the world “deeply concerning.”) Our previous newsletters—and plenty of analysts—have raised significant doubts over China’s official figures. Those remain, especially given WHO’s reluctance to speak about Chinese politics.
Yet over the last week, in many areas lockdowns have been partially lifted, with Chinese authorities shifting to models of monitored surveillance instead of total quarantine. Workplaces are conducting such monitoring in addition to the government, with some workers required to download apps that track their movements—allowing only transit between home and office out of fear of punishment.
Empty offices, empty cities. The push for workers to return to factories and offices may be a sign that the Chinese government is genuinely confident that it has beaten the worst of the virus epidemic. But it may also be a sign of economic desperation. It doesn’t seem to be paying off yet: The streets and subways of China’s big cities remain disturbingly empty, with the holiday decorations for what turned out to be a bleak Lunar New Year still up. Economic data shows a slight recovery, but nothing near the scale needed to get China back on track.
On Monday, China announced it would postpone critical annual political meetings without setting a new date. It’s possible President Xi Jinping is as nervous about conspiracy as contamination. Bringing thousands of officials together, where they are able to talk privately without arousing suspicion, may not be high on Xi’s agenda right now.
Desperate businesses. China’s small and medium-sized enterprises are now teetering on the edge of the abyss. It’s not just the loss of staff and productivity hurting business but also the sharp drop in exports as foreign businesses look to diversify their suppliers. The government has promised workers they will still be paid, but in practice that has become a negotiation between firms and workers. Migrant workers, who often change jobs after the Lunar New Year, have suffered the most: facing isolation, poverty, and discrimination.
What about health care workers? On Feb. 14, more than a month into the crisis, China disclosed that around 1,400 medical workers had been infected. WHO has pressed China for specific figures on cases among medical workers, but it has so far not reported the data to the organization—leaving an information gap, the Washington Post reports. So far, China has reported (link in Chinese) the deaths of 22 health care workers since the outbreak began—with 11 attributed to the coronavirus.
What We’re Following
Global virus outbreaks. With serious outbreaks in Iran, Italy, and South Korea, and the first coronavirus cases detected in vulnerable countries such as Algeria, the rest of the world may could soon face the challenges that China has dealt with over the last month. South Korea’s openness in virus-hit Daegu, which hasn’t imposed travel restrictions, could be an alternative model to China’s lockdowns—if it works. South Korea has run more than 35,000 diagnostic tests and pledged to test all 200,000 members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the cult at the heart of the outbreak. (The United States, in contrast, has tested just 426 people.) If the world sees a coronavirus pandemic, it will be impossible for China to avoid further infections, even if its current outbreak is truly under control.
Read Foreign Policy’s tips for how to prepare for the possibility of a coronavirus quarantine.
Undiplomatic ambassadors. As China ramps up its nationalistic rhetoric over the coronavirus outbreak, the notoriously trollish Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijian made his debut as spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs this week. Zhao has pioneered an aggressive style of Chinese diplomacy over the last few months, particularly on Twitter. It has paid off for him professionally, and his manner is being imitated by other diplomatic personnel, such as the recent appearance by a Chinese diplomat at a soft-power conference in Britain who claimed that reports on Chinese treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang were “fake news.”
Media skirmishes. The expulsion of three Wall Street Journal reporters from China following U.S. restrictions on Chinese state media in the United States has prompted discussion within the Trump administration of further retaliation. It’s being debated whether such measures are effective and whether they would put U.S. reporters in China at greater risk. Targeting of Chinese officials could be a smarter move than going after Chinese journalists, even at propaganda outlets. There are already rumors of future expulsions of prominent U.S. journalists from China, whatever Washington does.
Conspiracy theories. A new conspiracy theory circulating online claims the coronavirus originated in the United States, based on the supposed discrepancy between influenza deaths there and in China. (The discrepancy is actually because China records deaths by pneumonia separately from flu. Chinese doctors estimate the real number of flu deaths in China is around 88,000 annually.) Popular WeChat sites such as CollegeDaily, already a vector for Islamophobia and anti-Americanism, are spreading the theories (link in Chinese) without censorship.
Tech and Business
CCP conference call. Xi led a teleconference of as many as 170,000 party and military officials on Sunday to emphasize his role at the center of the fight against the coronavirus outbreak. Videoconferencing may become a regular tool for Xi, especially given the prominent role that an app dedicated to the leader’s dogma now plays. Party propaganda has emphasized Xi’s ability to reach cadres directly, though in practice it’s hard to see any difference between watching a meeting live and seeing it on TV. It’s not as if Xi is taking questions.
Scientific evaluation. A major change to the way that Chinese scientists are evaluated emphasizes the need to publish in domestic journals and downplays the status of international publications. Some scientists argue that this is a much-needed change, avoiding the rush to publish abroad that has led to poor-quality work. But it has also raised fears of further decoupling from the rest of the world and even greater politicization of science in China. At the same time, the emphasis of the pseudoscience of so-called traditional Chinese medicine continues, with Xinhua claiming it has been used to treat 60,000 coronavirus cases.
Agricultural disaster. Remember when the biggest epidemic worry for China was the African swine fever decimating its pig herds? The coronavirus has also slashed the food chain, with feed unable to reach animals and bees dying en masse. These trends may be scarier to the government than the manufacturing slowdown. China’s ability to feed itself is one of the country’s proudest achievements, and agriculture remains the subject of the first central party circular each year.
What We’re Watching
Australia and China: A Healthy Relationship?, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation
The comedian, analyst, and Foreign Policy contributor Vicky Xiuzhong Xu takes on China’s ambassador to Australia over Xinjiang repression on the Australian show Q+A. What’s notable here is not just the ambassador’s usual lying over the conditions in Xinjiang but the mocking laughter with which the Australian audience greets his claims. Thanks to social media, one Uighur victim’s family was able to refute the ambassador’s claims on the show almost immediately.
Xi has described the fight against the coronavirus as a “people’s war.” The term was originally conceived as an actual strategy: Mao Zedong’s guerrilla movement would swim among the people to fight against the Japanese. “The people” are everywhere in the People’s Republic of China, from the People’s Daily to the Great Hall of the People, even as the actual public has no say in those institutions. Chinese official rhetoric is still suffused with wartime terms—fight, all-out struggle, battle, campaign. The people’s war is just another one, simultaneously militaristic and banal.
That’s it for this week.