An expert's point of view on a current event.

China Has a Playbook for Managing Coronavirus Chaos

Convincing the world that freedom is worth it will be a hard struggle if Beijing sells its message right.

A man reads a book in front of a board with an image of China's President Xi Jinping
A man reads a book in front of a board with an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping at a book store in Shenyang, China, on April 23. STR/AFP via Getty Images

To governments around the world, the underlying threat of the current pandemic is not just death, but chaos. The mandate of all governments is to seek the opposite—maintaining order. The current competition between democratic societies in the West and authoritarian regimes such as China is about who can restore political order quickly and at what cost.

To governments around the world, the underlying threat of the current pandemic is not just death, but chaos. The mandate of all governments is to seek the opposite—maintaining order. The current competition between democratic societies in the West and authoritarian regimes such as China is about who can restore political order quickly and at what cost.

People desire predictability and fear chaos. The world is seeing a great race between countries seeking to reestablish their previous order as the coronavirus and lockdowns rock the foundations of their societies and threaten chaos. For the moment, North America and Europe appear to lag behind. Meanwhile, China, the great authoritarian power, has reportedly flattened its curve—the rate at which the coronavirus spreads—and is on its way to somewhat reviving the economy. Despite the government’s questionable statistical reporting, Chinese are going back to work.

Throughout this crisis, the Chinese government has been showcasing to the world its playbook for controlling chaos. Chinese propaganda mocks Western countries for not being able to “copy its homework” in battling the virus.

This playbook is not new. It involves above all mobilizing the public to take part in fighting a “people’s war.” It assumes that chaos is the common enemy of state and society alike. Well before Chinese President Xi Jinping took power, the Chinese Communist Party developed a set of tried and trusted tactics for controlling the chaos. Although Mao Zedong relished political chaos, calling it an “excellent” situation, Chinese political leaders thereafter learned to fear it. Since the Tiananmen democracy movement in 1989, Beijing’s No. 1 political priority has been to maintain internal social stability by maximizing order and minimizing social chaos.

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Many Chinese people also accept the ideology that maintaining social stability is the most important public good the government can provide. The Chinese fear of chaos is deeply ingrained in the national psyche. The mandate of heaven given to Chinese rulers since the dynastic era promises the people a right to rebel if they no longer find the rulers legitimate. Yet, in the recent era, the Chinese Communist Party has instilled in ordinary people a dread of chaos and disorder. Even some rights activists whom I spoke to for my book on grassroots mobilization felt that China needed to reform, but not at the cost of unleashing total chaos.

Chaos can be unleashed in three spheres: mental, cultural, and societal. On the mental level, Chinese rulers have defined chaos as any way of thinking that diverges from that of the Chinese Communist Party. It uses what’s known as “thought work” to tackle any divergence. When Chinese university students belonging to Marxist groups and other activists cross the line, the government makes them rectify their thinking through confessions.

Chaos can also manifest itself in the cultural sphere. The digital diary entries of the writer Fang Fang, who wrote from the initial epicenter of the coronavirus in Wuhan, is one such example. Her diary, which attracted 3.8 million followers, outraged Chinese netizens who felt that she was exposing China’s internal chaos to Western audiences.

In the societal sphere, the state sees organized collective action as unleashing chaos. The phrase “social movements” is not used in the official lexicon. Instead, movements such as the recent Hong Kong protests are commonly described in both official media and social media posts as “moving chaos” or “riotous chaos.”

Because of this deep-seated fear of chaos in multiple realms, citizens can be mobilized into action at every rung of society when the government declares chaos at hand.

But that playbook comes with its own risks. Step one is to cover up the problem—trusting that most threats can be dampened early and pushed aside. If that fails and the issue blows up, it’s time for step two: Restore order internally and blame chaos on outsiders.

The first step requires treating disorder like a wildfire: Douse water on it quickly and build barriers lest it spread to the rest of society. The Hubei local government’s initial silencing of whistleblowers in the coronavirus outbreak is taken straight from this playbook—a cover-up tactic used by local officials across the country to silence dissidents. Local officials, fearful of being sanctioned by their superiors for not maintaining local stability, routinely pay off or intimidate would-be critics. Troublemakers are regularly taken out to tea with the state security, and some are even forced to go on vacation to keep them away from politics.

That Hubei officials hushed up netizens for circulating supposedly false news was nothing unusual or new. In 2013, Xi launched an anti-rumor campaign meant to sanction online critics such as the Chinese American businessman Charles Xue. Most of the time these tactics are successful. The government’s campaigns to silence human rights lawyers, labor activists, and ideological dissenters alike have left civil society embattled, though not demobilized. The Wuhan-based doctor Li Wenliang was just one among many individuals whose voices the government silenced. Except this time, it caused a blowup that literally went viral.

But if the cover-up can no longer be suppressed, the next step is to restore domestic order at all cost. The No. 1 political priority has always been to maintain social stability, a key pillar of the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy.

From day one, the Chinese government tackled the coronavirus outbreak as a domestic security threat, not just as a public health emergency. It mobilized every unit of control, from state to society. Once they received Beijing’s signal to clamp down at all cost, local governments organized quickly. Citizens were told to monitor their neighbors.  Chinese tech companies supplied the police with data from health apps that determined whether citizens should be quarantined. The normal movements of an estimated 60 million people in Hubei Province were sacrificed for the greater good of social stability.

In any free society, these extreme control measures would have provoked protests, perhaps even riots. Not in China. Though an online revolt surfaced after the death of the whistleblower doctor, Li, who was punished for telling the truth about the virus too early, the vast majority of Chinese people believe the government rescued them from the fate of the Italians and Americans.

Just as China’s domestic infections were getting under control, official propaganda shifted into another familiar mode: Blaming the cause and poor handling of the crisis on foreigners. The tall tale that the Chinese foreign ministry spun about the U.S. origins of the virus is an old tactic, going back to the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement. Then-leader Jiang Zemin accused Western scholars who assembled the Tiananmen Papers of trying to “hype up the event to create internal chaos for us.” Since then, the Chinese government has blamed many internal social movements on the West, including Charter 08 and the Jasmine Revolution. When Hong Kongers took to the streets in the months before the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government also blamed protests on the “black hand” of Western powers.

China’s model of national emergency response was born out of controlling chaos. It is indeed a system that can restore order and do it quickly, thanks to its historically strong state capacity. However, it is a model that should not and cannot be replicated in other countries. Citizens in free societies are more comfortable with a degree of dissent and disorder; they consider a limited degree of stability as the price of liberty.

If America is not just a country but also an idea, then its central idea is that liberty is as valuable as life itself. Is it any surprise, then, that as the United States crests 70,000 coronavirus-related deaths, a great many Americans are still defying social isolation orders? Recent anti-lockdown protesters in the United States seem to take literally the Founding Father Patrick Henry’s cry, “give me liberty, or give me death.” While this behavior is far from laudable, it reflects a fundamental difference in political values between China and the West.

In this great race, leaders of Western free societies must balance restoring order quickly against preserving individuals’ and local governments’ liberties. This has led to confused tactics, producing slow action and dithering debates over national lockdown measures.

But the race is not over. The measures of success are different for different political systems. For the Chinese government and the vast majority of its citizens, the goal is singular: restoring order, because what higher good is there?  The fact that the Chinese government’s implementation of new surveillance technologies may persist long after the pandemic is over does not disturb its citizens.

The pandemic’s legacy for many may be that living in a Chinese-style dictatorship is far superior to living in the West’s free societies that cannot harness disorder quickly. For the governments and people of the so-called free world, restoring order also means, eventually, tearing down the restrictions on liberty the coronavirus forced. The question is, will they be able to convince the rest of the world that freedom is still worth fighting for?

Diana Fu is associate professor of political sciences at The University of Toronto and an affiliate of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy Asian Institute. Her research examines popular contention, state power, civil society, and citizenship, with a focus on contemporary China.

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