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China’s New Normal
Life in China is springing back after weeks of lockdown, but it’s still taking place under the shadow of the coronavirus.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly China Brief. The highlights this week: What China’s new normal looks like after the worst of the coronavirus epidemic, the Chinese Communist Party continues its propaganda campaign about the origins of the disease, and a facial recognition company has figured out how to see past masks.
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Is China Returning to Business as Usual?
Life in China appears to be beginning to return to normal after weeks of lockdown due to the coronavirus. Although the streets of major cities aren’t anywhere near as crowded as before, people are coming out again and offices and factories are starting to spring back to life. The makeshift hospitals erected in Wuhan amid the outbreak have been closed, and the epidemic seems to have been broken there. On Tuesday, President Xi Jinping arrived in Wuhan for a carefully planned visit. There, local leaders have demanded that the people show their gratitude to the party, which received some pushback.
Don’t confuse this with actual normality. Life in China is still happening under the shadow of the virus, with temperature checks, app monitoring, and other biosecurity measures. That includes a just-announced 14-day quarantine period for all international arrivals at Beijing’s airports, which could extend across the country soon. (That make Beijing’s insistence in February that other countries’ travel restrictions were unnecessary look a little hypocritical.) Movement within the country is still restricted, including for migrant workers. But China is edging toward a consensus on what life will look like now.
Quarantine success? The key to ending the worst in Wuhan appears to have been centralized quarantine, despite initial worries from public health experts that it might cause further contagion. Clinical data produced by Chinese doctors with support from Harvard University shows the number of people infected by each carrier has dropped to 0.3 as a result of the measure. (Caveat: This research is a pre-print and has not been peer-reviewed.)
Wuhan doctor speaks. Ai Fen, the director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital, has spoken out about the early cover-up of the outbreak, throwing a wrench into the Chinese government’s attempt to rewrite the story as one of national triumph. Ai’s interview in a Chinese magazine was quickly censored, but it is still being shared in creative ways: including telling it through emojis and using the Star Wars opening crawl.
The unfortunate lesson of the last two decades has been that the censorship still works: Even if Ai’s story spreads quickly for a brief period of time, it will be forgotten by most in the long term.
Is it a false dawn? The consensus among many epidemiologists now is that the spread of the pandemic is inevitable and that 60 to 70 percent of the world population will eventually contract the virus. That doesn’t take away from China’s achievements in slowing its spread since January, which will make a difference in the ability of health care systems to cope. Here’s what worries me: Now that the messaging has shifted, any local official who reports new cases could risk political danger—and that means a potential return to the errors of the early cover-up.
If we’re lucky, China’s central government will send signals to discourage this. Admitting the odds of future infection in China rather than trying to claim a final victory against the virus would be a good start, even if outsiders are blamed.
What We’re Following
Obscuring the origins. The propaganda push that began last week to try to deny that the coronavirus outbreak started in China at all is getting stronger. Foreign journalists have received emails from Chinese diplomats denying that there’s evidence that the virus began on the mainland rather than being imported from elsewhere, and there is a concerted effort to blame other countries. So far, the botched U.S. response is boosting the propaganda.
The politicized attempt by the American right wing to use the phrase “Wuhan virus” or “China virus” instead of COVID-19, the official name for the disease, doesn’t help. It does nothing to challenge the Chinese Communist Party, but it does put ordinary Chinese on the defense and give unwanted cover to racists. International organizations also need to be ready to challenge powerful governments’ falsehoods, as Thomas J. Bollyky and Yanzhong Huang write in FP.
China sells supplies to Italy. Beijing has seized upon its production capacities to promise medical goods to other nations hard hit by the virus. With the lack of European aid directed to Italy, the worst-affected country in Europe, China is selling—not donating—2 million masks and other equipment such as ventilators to fill urgently needed gaps.
Psychological damage. Weeks of quarantine are beginning to take their toll on families in China. There has been an increase in cases of domestic violence, already a serious problem in China. As the rest of the world contemplates its response to the virus, that is another argument for more flexible measures such as in South Korea.
Tech and Business
Facial recognition improves. A potentially disturbing development: Amid the coronavirus outbreak, a Chinese facial recognition software company now claims to be able to detect faces even through masks—one of the ways protesters in Hong Kong and elsewhere had avoided being identified. It’s only one firm, but with the revelation that the camera giant Hikvision has been training at a paramilitary base in Xinjiang that bans Uighurs from participating, the future is beginning to look darker.
Local food chains. One underrated success during the lockdowns in China has been keeping supply chains intact, especially for fresh vegetables. That traces to the Vegetable Basket Project, initiated in the late 1980s to increase urban access to fresh fruit and vegetables. The program got a push a few years ago when it was used to evaluate mayoral performance. It has kept shortages to a minimum, at least in the big cities, and is a model that others could learn from. (Hat tip on this one to Even Rogers Pay, an invaluable agricultural expert.)
Exports in free fall. Chinese trade dropped 17.2 percent in January and February, according to official data. The government is hoping for a recovery in May. But if the rest of the world is swept up by coronavirus panic and slowed production, how likely is that? The odds of a rapid recovery seem very low, given the global nature of the epidemic.
What We’re Listening To
There’s really only one thing you need to listen to this week: the British-accented tones of myself and Foreign Policy staff writer Amy Mackinnon on Don’t Touch Your Face, FP’s new daily podcast on the coronavirus. This week we’ve spoken with health expert Annie Sparrow about the front-line fight against epidemics and frequent contributor Lauren Teixeira about the quarantines in China and the United States.
That’s it for this week.