China’s Coronavirus Solution: More Government Control Trumps More Medicine

In the face of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, Xi Jinping went into hiding. From January 28 to February 5, he made no public appearances. He briefly appeared on February 5 and promptly disappeared again. We would have expected that during his brief appearance Mr. Xi would make a stirring speech about leading China in a full scale effort to combat the coronavirus epidemic. To the surprise of many of us, Mr. Xi’s first public announcement did not provide details on the health and safety measures that will be implemented in China to contain the outbreak and provide medical assistance to the ill and dying. Rather, he discussed a completely different matter: legal controls intended to contain the social stability impacts of the outbreak. As reported by the South China Morning Post (SCMP):

“Xi also chaired a legal work conference on Wednesday, at which he said the nation’s legal system had a key role to play in helping to contain the virus. It was essential, he said, that laws covering the trade in wild animals and the management of public health incidents were strictly enforced.

“Currently we are at the critical moment of controlling the epidemic,” he said. “Offences jeopardizing disease control, including resistance to control measures, violence towards medical staff, counterfeiting medical materials and the spreading of rumours must be severely curtailed.” ”

President. Xi’s statement from this conference has been headline news all over China, as a headline article on the Xinhua website  and as the lead article on the Seeking Truth website devoted to communist theory and the thought of Xi Jinping.

This is what happened. On February 5, President Xi convened a meeting of the CCP Central Committee Working Group on Comprehensively Governing the Country in Accordance with Law. 中央全面依法治国委员会中央全面依法治国委员会 This is an ad hoc committee with no set meeting time or agenda. This means that Xi called this meeting as an extraordinary session. In attendance at the meeting were the core members of the Politburo: Li Keqiang, the head of the State Council and Li Zhanshu and Wang Huning, President Xi’s ideological supporters (the “think tank” 智囊). With this group of four in attendance, it is clear that the meeting represents the thinking of the core of the CCP leadership.

As a result of this meeting, Mr Xi issued the statement referred to by the SCMP. The (long) title of that Statement is “Provide an effective system of legal measures for epidemic prevention and control by comprehensively improving the ability to control, prevent and govern in accordance with law (全面提高依法防控依法治理能力 为疫情防控提供有力法治保障). The full text of the statement can be found (in Chinese) at the Xinhua and Seeking Truth links provided above.

As reported by Xinhua, the focus of the statement is the threat to use legal measures to control the response of the public, medical staff and local governments to laws and regulations coming from the central government intended to deal with the coronavirus epidemic. But what are those legal measures? The Statement provides that the Beijing Central government will do the following:

  1. Enact legislation for effective prevention and control of the epidemic.
  2. Improve the system of punishments.
  3. Strengthen public security measures.
  4. Establish an effective legal system for prevention and control of the epidemic.

Given the current situation in China, consider just how odd this list of measures is. The two key features are, one, a reference to legal work that will be done in the future, and, two, insistence on responses to the coronavirus situation that will come from the bureaucrats and the governing center.

But the persons suffering from the epidemic need help now, not at some vague time in the future. And the help they need is provision of medical facilities, personnel and supplies. The LAST thing they need is more laws issued from Beijing by bureaucrats with no front line contact with the situations on the ground. Stated simply, what the people need is funding and support for medical issues, not threats of legal action. But instead of convening a working group of doctors and scientists, this is what President Xi decided was most important.

Though this latest Statement is truly bizarre (and grossly unfeeling), it is actually quite consistent with the approach the Chinese government has taken towards this outbreak since its inception. Pretty much since Day One of the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government’s central focus has been on controlling information and exercising oppressive control over the public, the frontline medical personnel and the lawyers and journalists working to reveal the truth of the situation. This control at all costs approach continues. In his most recent response to the situation in Wuhan, President Xi did not send down a medical expert. Rather, he instead dispatched Chen Xixin, former Wuhan CCP chairman, who is usually described as President Xi’s “security protege” and whose sole job is to maintain social stability. See Xi Jinping security protégé to bolster China’s coronavirus task force.

This control over information will also lead to arrests of more truth-tellers like  Dr. Li Wenliang, most of whom will never become publicly known. The Chinese government has seen how Dr. Li’s heroism and subsequent arrest has already galvanized the Chinese public against the government and it will be more careful to suppress similar information going forward. Martyrs make for revolutions and, more than anything, the Chinese Communist Party will do whatever is necessary for it to remain in power.

For those of us focused on doing business in and with China, this Chinese government emphasis on control over cure will likely have two immediate impacts. First, access to accurate information about the coronavirus situation will become even more restricted. Second, local officials are now required to produce results and this means the pressure on local governments to provide falsely positive coronavirus data will increase.

The above means uncertainty of information in China will increase, distrust of the government will grow, and the general hysteria in the Chinese public will increase. These things will likely exacerbate the paralysis of transportation throughout China that we are already seeing. making the planned return to work scheduled for February 10 very uncertain. Prepare for a bumpy ride.

Tomorrow we will talk about why we are pessimistic about foreign companies getting their products manufactured in China and shipped for delivery.

Update: See He spoke out about the Wuhan virus. Now his family and friends fear he’s been silenced.

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