China’s Coronavirus Reaction: Law Trumps Medicine, Part 2

I am writing this to update my recent post on the legal response to the Covid-19 virus epidemic in China, China’s Coronavirus Solution: More Government Control Trumps More Medicine.

In response to President Xi’s Statement on using law to combat the virus outbreak, the Beijing authorities have responded in a manner consistent with the theme of his Statement. The CCP are continuing to prioritize maintaining social stability by concealing the truth about what is actually happening on the ground than oRather over controlling the disease or providing comfort to the public. Concealing the truth will make it impossible for the Chinese government to contain the epidemic. This will be a tragedy for China, but it will (as it already has) also prove both an economic and health risk for the entire world.

In the previous post, we noted how the death of whistleblower Doctor Li Wenliang has become a focus for citizen anger at the Chinese government suppression of information about the disease. When Li and other doctors expressed their concerns about the disease, they were detained by the police and forced to retract their statements. Li’s death from the exact disease he sought to expose highlights the issue.

In response to the Li Wenliang situation, the PRC National Supervisory Commission issued a terse statement on its official website, noting that in accordance with authorization from the Beijing, it will dispatch an investigation team to Wuhan. The stated purpose of this investigation is to conduct a complete investigation of the Dr. Li Wenliang affair in response to the concerns expressed by the masses. (經中央批准,國家監察委員會決定派出調查組赴湖北省武漢市,就群眾反映的涉及李文亮醫生的有關問題作全面調查。) .

The National Supervisory Commission (CCDI) was formed in 2018 to take the lead on  President Xi’s anti-corruption drive. The Commission was formed to allow China’s national government to focus on the activities of local government due to suspicions local supervisory authorities were not acting aggressively enough in promoting President Xi’s agenda. The Commission has no role regarding the medical emergency. Its sole purpose is to project power from the Center (the CCP) down to the provincial and prefectural governments.

As we reported in our earlier post, the other major step from Beijing was to dispatch Mr. Chen Xin ( 陈一新) to serve on the central government virus control task force nominally headed by Madame Sun Chunlang 孙春兰, Vice-Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China ( 中华人民共和国国务院副总理). Madame Sun is a member of the Party School faction and holds little power. Chen, on the other hand, is a protege of President Xi and it is widely believed he is in command of the working group. See Beijing pins hopes on ‘guy with the emperor’s sword’ to restore order in coronavirus-hit Hubei.

But who is Chen Yixin? He is the Secretary General 秘书长 of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission 中共中央政法委员会, the CCP’s top law enforcement organization. More specifically, he is tasked with leading the anti-corruption campaign on a national level. He came to China’s Legal Affairs Commission after having worked closely with Wang Huning on the Central Comprehensively Deepening Reforms Commission (中央全面深化改革委员会), where his mission was to increase the power of President Xi and the Beijing center against power in the provinces.

So the two responses we noted have the same goal. The anti-corruption authority in Beijing has been dispatched to Wuhan to contain the crisis. Some in China argue that “anti-corruption” is just a euphemism for dealing with the political enemies of President Xi. Thought there is no doubt some truth to that, that is not the real issue. The fundamental focus of the anti-corruption drive is to increase the authority of the Beijing center as against local sources of power, both within the CCP and the local governments. So the action from Beijing should be seen in that light.

The focus on power, suppression and control can be seen in what has actually happened in Wuhan after the arrival of the anti-corruption team. Consider first the issue of the response to the suppression, arrest and death of Li Wenliang. After the arrival of the CCDI and Mr. Chen, the clampdown on independent sources of information has greatly increased:

  • Citizen activist Fang Bin has been arrested and disappeared.  Note that for China, “disappeared” is a transitive verb, as in Fang Bin was disappeared.
  • Lawyer and citizen journalist Chen Qiushi has been arrested and disappeared. 
  • Censorship on all matters related to the Wuhan situation has been made absolute. See China’s online censors tighten grip after brief coronavirus respite. No information comes from Wuhan medical officials. All information is now coming from Beijing, where it is carefully controlled.
  • Chen Yixin has ordered the press issue only “happy” stories, leaving the truth unreported: The SCMP reported that, “Meeting officials on Saturday, Chen said they should make plans for “two battlefields, both online and offline, guide the consensus, strictly handle online rumours and promote touching stories taking place at the front line of preventing and combating disease”.
  • Beijing is seeking to pass off the injustice done to Dr. Li Wenliang on the local police. Even though the CCDI sent an investigation team to Wuhan, there has not been a sigle report of any person from the public security system being investigated. Members of the Wuhan health department have been removed but as was true before and during Dr. Li’s detention, Chinese government officials are instructed to detain those who speak publicly (or quasi-publicly) about the coronavirus in a way that runs at all counter to the government’s happy narrative. In other words, they are to treat people exactly the same way they treated Dr. Li.
  • This move to further suppress information has been echoed by the national government legal authorities on multiple occasions. In its recent notice on dealing with the virus outbreak, China’s Ministry of Justice emphasized that control of information, the Internet, journalism and media would be THE single primary focus. In response to the Xi Jingping Statement we reported on in our previous post, the justice officials in Beijing issued a ten point program on the legal response to the virus epidemic. It should come as no surprise to learn that its primary focus is on suppression and control: “Malicious fabrication of epidemic information, causing social panic, stirring up public sentiment, or disrupting social order, especially maliciously attacking the party and government, taking the opportunity to incite subversion of state power or overthrow of the socialist system, should be strictly punished in accordance with law.” See Chinese authorities say coronavirus control at heart of clampdown. The recent arrests of scores of Chinese citizens seeking to reveal the truth about the coronavirus situation are consistent with this program of suppression and control.

On the background of this program, the Politburo Central Committee convened a meeting on the issue on February 12. After the meeting, President Xi issued a formal statement, which can be found here, in Chinese.  This Statement makes two points: First, local officials and party members are ordered to resolve the health crisis as soon as possible. There is NO statement about how to do that or where the funding will come from to do that. Second, local officials and party members are ordered to get the economy moving so China can achieve President Xi’s goal of achieving a relatively prosperous society by year 2020. Again, the objective is stated clearly, with no details on how to achieve that objective or from where funding will come to achieve the goal.

This will produce two typical responses from local officials and party members. The first will be paralysis. In times of crisis, the Chinese bureaucracy tends not to take affirmative action; they instead usually freeze up and do nothing. They do this out of fear that any action they take will bring disaster later, as they saw happen in Wuhan. So they will do nothing. The second will be to falsely report success. Beijing demands success ,so that is what the local governments will report. The real situation will be hidden. As Mr. Chen requires, only “happy” stories of success will be released. No one will know what is really happening. This was the primary factor that lead to the Great Leap Famine. Less dramatically, this is what leads local government officials to constantly and consistently lie about their local economic numbers.

There is substantial risk that the same thing will happen with the Covid-19 epidemic.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Many of us are getting hate mail and intense criticism for our writings regarding what is really happening in China. Many of these seem to come from those who are incensed that we are providing more than just “happy” stories from and about China. Most of these accuse us of hating China and of writing what we do to somehow gain economic advantage. This is nonsense. We are writing the TRUTH about China as best we can not because we hate China, but because we care deeply about the Chinese people. Most of us have spent decades involved with China and we have friends and relatives in China and many have Chinese spouses. If you want to accuse us of these things, go ahead, but do not expect us to take these false accusations lying down. Our response has been and will be to note that those who say that about us seem more concerned about protecting China’s existing power structure than protecting the health and safety of the Chinese people.

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