The coronavirus pandemic is raising systemic questions with a new vehemence. With respect to China’s handling of the virus outbreak, German media reporting is heavily ideologically loaded. In numerous commentaries, China’s crisis management—which has proven to be successful in its early phase at least—is described as inadequate, whether in relation to public information policy, the authoritarian methods used to tackle the virus, or the ensuing developments in terms of political power and legitimacy. Criticism of China’s handling of the crisis is frequently linked to a perception of its political system as illegitimate. Reporting on the coronavirus reveals how quickly systemic questions are raised in connection with China, how biased the reporting is, and how grim the forecasts are.
Leonie Schiffauer works for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation as a senior advisor for East, South and Central Asia. She holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from Cambridge University.
In many respects, criticism of China’s approach is important and justified. However, such criticism should be proportional to the merits and successes that China has been able to demonstrate in its handling of the crisis. And should we not also be asking ourselves what we can learn from China’s crisis management? Or, in judging and assessing the Chinese measures, reflect on our own capacities and strategies for handling crisis situation? The new coronavirus is revealing very clearly the differences between systems in their preparedness to take effective steps to protect the common good. Instead of losing ourselves in an ideologically charged debate about the legitimacy of different socio-political systems, we should be viewing this diversity as an opportunity to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of our own actions and, if necessary, develop new alternatives for action.
It was the death of Chinese doctor Li Wenliang on 7 February that led to massive criticism of Chinese authorities’ policy on public information sharing. Li Wenliang was one of the doctors who discovered a new type of lung disease in December 2019. On 30 December, he discussed the virus with colleagues in an online forum, and together they drew a comparison with the SARS pandemic of 2002/2003. The police then accused the doctors of spreading rumours and obliged them to sign confidentiality agreements. Shortly thereafter, Li Wenliang became infected with the virus; he died a few weeks later, becoming a national hero in the fight against the outbreak.
In connection with the Li Wenliang case, many leading German media organizations have accused China of deliberately hiding and withholding information related to the dangers of the virus. Die Welt newspaper, for example, writes that the Li Wenliang case “highlights the dramatic extent to which the CP [Communist Party] tried to deny the existence of the virus.” Yet according to Nis Grünberg of the Mercator Institute for Chinese Studies, it would be incorrect in this case to speak of “an extraordinary cover up” by the Chinese authorities. Rather, the censorship with regard to the coronavirus is simply a matter of routine: the Chinese government has long been systematically monitoring information that, in its view, threatens social stability or criticizes the government.
Information about the virus was passed on early, just not to the general Chinese public. The authorities already knew about the virus in December through an internal reporting system and the World Health Organization was informed on 31 December 31, that is, even before Li Wenliang and his colleagues were forced into silence. On 1 January, the Wuhan market where the outbreak was suspected to have started was closed and it was announced publicly that the closure was due to an outbreak of viral lung disease. On 7 January, the coronavirus “2019-nCov” was identified by scientists; within four days, the genetic composition of the virus was made available worldwide via a specialist platform.
It took several weeks for the Chinese population to be adequately informed of the seriousness of the situation. It wasn’t until 20 January 2020 that it was announced that the virus could be transmitted from person to person—information that would have to have been known for at least two weeks at that time. Three days later, systematic measures were taken, the metropolis of Wuhan was sealed off, and the Hubei region was quickly shutdown. Subsequent state media reports on the virus repeatedly called for transparency, which certainly makes room for the interpretation that China wanted to act responsibly in dealing with health crises. However, if the population had been warned more rapidly and without censorship, it would have facilitated better self-protection and the spread of the virus could have been significantly slowed down.
China has therefore not been exemplary in its approach to public awareness and this example shows once again how important the control of information is to the CP. But it has also exposed the fact that the system contains contradictions, and reveals just how fuzzy the decision-making hierarchies are with regard to that control. The news of Li Wenliang’s death, which made the problem of censorship transparent in the most tragic possible way, rapidly went viral on social media, while news reports were censored until the public had been officially informed a short time later. Similarly, a call for transparency in dealing with Corona from the CP’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, shared via the Weibo platform, was deleted after a few hours. It is therefore crudely reductive of the facts to represent China as a monolithic juggernaut intent on hiding the virus and thus cementing the CP’s power.
In terms of the response time in the early stages of the crisis, this also merits a comparison: Germany’s first case of coronavirus was announced on 27 January, but Merkel’s first press conference on the virus did not take place until 11 March. Given what was already known about how rapidly the virus had spread in China and how problematic the situation in Italy had already become, this was very late indeed. Here, too, the spread of the virus could have been prevented by a quicker and more systematic response, and if media reports repeatedly charge that China reacted too late, the question should now be raised whether Germany acted more responsibly by comparison.
In its report, the World Health Organization praised China’s actions as “possibly the most ambitious, fastest and most aggressive effort to curb disease in history”.Of course, one could point out the growing influence of China on the World Health Organization, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung does, yet it was an international mission consisting of 25 experts from a legitimate body who made this assessment, albeit from a medical perspective, for they were not tasked with providing a critical assessment in terms of human rights or freedom of expression. Here, too, facts have been combined in the reporting in a way that is intended to paint a certain (negative) picture of China, although there is clear evidence of progress (e.g. compared to the handling of SARS).
After the official announcement of the dangers posed by the virus, China quickly took radical measures to curb its spread. Not only were Wuhan and the Hubei province quarantined, but other cities with populations in the millions, such as Hangzhou, were likewise sealed off from the outside world. All traffic connections were interrupted, a curfew was imposed, and schools, parks, shops, offices, and factories were closed.
The health system in Wuhan was quickly overwhelmed, but two new hospitals for coronavirus patients were built within two weeks. Due to the centralized and hierarchical political system, it was possible to channel sufficient funds and mobilize the necessary specialists in record time.
Beijing also did everything it could to trace the chains of infection. In Wuhan alone, 1800 teams were recruited to track down anyone who had been in contact with infected people in order to examine them for possible symptoms; over the past few weeks these teams have paid visits to tens thousands of people. Big data and artificial intelligence are also playing an important role in the reconstruction of chains of infection. In some cities, public transport users have to register using a QR code so that data about their whereabouts can be collected. Cameras designed to measure body temperature have been installed at various locations such as the central train station in Beijing, in order to directly identify any passengers with symptoms. In some cities, there are apps with which users can call up a map of the local area indicating where people infected or potentially infected with coronavirus are staying, so as to facilitate self-protection.
With all of these measures, China has managed to limit the spread of the virus. No new infections have been reported since mid-March and life in the country is slowly returning to normal. The methods used by China to combat the virus have been observed with great scepticism by many German media organizations, because—from a Western perspective—they too severely restrict the freedom of the individual. A widespread discursive strategy here is to pick out individual fates that supposedly show, as was claimed in Die Zeit, for example, “how little the life and rights of its citizens are really worth to their own government”.
One can agree or disagree over whether China’s measures and methods in the fight against the coronavirus are justified. Time will tell whether a less radical procedure is sufficient to combat a pandemic in a sustained way. Either way, there is a clear ideological tendency in the descriptions of the Chinese measures, if only through linking them to the vocabulary of oppression, authoritarianism, and disregard for civil rights, or by making grim forecasts about how the pandemic could lead to the cementing of total state surveillance.
This is not to say that surveillance in China won’t become a problem or that authoritarian action in China doesn’t have many serious consequences. Since the coronavirus crisis emerged, there have been justified criticisms by the Chinese population or Chinese journalists of some of the measures introduced. To view every single decision of the CP as a sole exercise in the oppression of the country’s own population and portray China as a captive surveillance state, however, is absurdly reductive of the realities of the situation. There is, for example, widespread acceptance in China that data be collected on a large scale in order to enable chains of infection to be traced. Now that the situation is improving, many Chinese people who have been living abroad are returning home because they do not trust Western governments to take adequate measures to combat the pandemic and they feel more secure there.
We cannot assume that our Western understanding of the freedom of the individual is universal. The broad acceptance in China of a strong state that must by necessity limit the rights of the individual in the interests of the common good actually proves to be a great advantage in a crisis like this. Meanwhile, China has looked on with puzzlement at the European approach, which by comparison seems clumsy and uncoordinated. In this respect, China has clear systemic strengths that we would do well to consider more carefully, rather than devaluing them as antithetical to Western ideals.
After apparently bringing the first wave of the virus under control, China is now portraying itself as the perfect crisis manager and trying to extract political capital from the crisis. It is pointing to the West, which it depicts as incapable of dealing with the crisis. This is likewise a one-sided and generalized representation, the accuracy of which it is still impossible to judge. Yet when the editors of Die Zeit contend that the need to combat the virus successfully is in itself no reason to imitate China—there are, after all, democracies like Taiwan or South Korea that were able to contain the virus quickly and effectively—then they are not arguing objectively, but ideologically, and thereby doing exactly what they accuse China of.
Without question, it is state propaganda when China applauds its own response to the coronavirus crisis and the CP strategizes about how to spin the narrative in the event that the virus breaks out again (namely, that it has been re-imported and is therefore not the fault of the Chinese government). Naturally, such self-laudatory rhetoric by the Chinese government has been judged critically by Western commentators. The common, unfortunately one-sided, narrative in the German media is that the Chinese government is trying to use this propaganda strategy to divert attention from its own mistakes in the first weeks of the crisis. The FAZ, for example, writes that no one should be surprised by “the way Chinese leadership is trying to spin the coronavirus crisis. According to its own self-image, the Chinese system does not make mistakes.” Even if the Chinese thesis that the virus originated in the USA is absurd, articles like this one discredit China’s entire handling of the crisis in toto; furthermore, it is a distortion of the facts, especially since the Chinese authorities have publicly apologized to Li Wenliang’s family and have on numerous occasions expressed self-criticism regarding China’s handling of the outbreak.
After the situation in China had improved, China agreed to support other countries in the fight against the virus. For example, masks, doctors, and hospital staff were sent to Italy from China. There can be no doubt that this aid also has a geopolitical dimension, especially when Xi Jinping speaks of a “silk road of health” in his telephone conversations with Giuseppe Conte. It is perfectly legitimate here to highlight China’s intention to expand its influence in Europe, but it is only logical in this context to also ask whether Western aid has ever been unselfish or free from geopolitical ambitions.
Opinions such as those aired in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which sees China’s aid efforts as part of a larger attempt to lure countries in southern and eastern Europe “with seemingly attractive investments”, only to then subject them to “relentless pressure” when they criticize China’s policies, not only draw illogical connections, but they devalue the urgently needed aid China is only providing because the EU itself has completely failed to do so.
Through its own policies, the EU has handed China an opportunity to increase its influence in Europe. Lack of solidarity within Europe has already meant that Greece has been forced to privatize the port of Piraeus and has thus been pushed into the arms of China, that Italy is increasingly turning to China, and that the Central and Eastern European countries are also seeking dialogue with China. The remark by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, that European solidarity is a fairy tale and that only China can help them in the current crisis situation, makes his lack of trust in a European future explicit. Yes, China is looking for economic profit and power in Europe, but critical journalism should never forget to attend to Europe’s own shortcomings.
China is changing the geopolitical order and is increasingly perceived as a systemic competitor. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, there is once again a systemic conflict, expressing itself with particular acuteness in American-Chinese relations. Through its program of economic expansion, China is questioning the predominance of the West, holding up to the West a mirror of its own past.
A detailed study of German media reporting on China carried out by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung demonstrates how strongly this reporting is determined by “‘measuring’ the systems”, especially in the case of discursive patterns in reports on international relations, the environment, and the economy. Reporting on the corona crisis reveals once again how deeply German assessments of China’s policy are ideologically shaped, and how much they are guided by the implicit (and in most cases biased) question of which system is the more legitimate, while also failing to offer an objective assessment as to which system has managed to respond more adequately to the crisis.
This is especially obvious when comparing reports on the management of the crisis in other parts of the world. Articles dealing with the coronavirus crisis in other parts of the EU or in other democracies also make critical assessments, but the language is vastly different and the criticism—curiously—is not directed towards the political system as a whole but rather towards specific facts.
The characterization of China as a “rival” or “systemic competitor” is misleading. The Cold War has shown us just how dangerous it can be for debates about and policies towards an alternative social and political order to be so ideologically charged. We need a critical but constructive exchange with China that is not shaped by an intention to try and change the other—as if that would even work—but by an effort to learn respectfully from one another when it is evident that there are advantages to doing so. Systemic pluralism can also be an opportunity, if there is the political will to understand it as such. It becomes a problem when it is presented as a danger per se and is used to construct new enemies through the idealization of one’s own system.
[Translated by Kate Davison and Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective.]