China’s reaction to COVID-19 crisis could roughly be divided into three stages. Before the lockdown of Wuhan on Jan 23, China was in a stage of denial and denounced all reporting as rumors. Between Jan 23 and end of Feb, China was on defense, blaming the crisis on the unexpected severity and contagiousness of the disease and mobilizing people to support the government’s strict control of information and human mobility. Starting from early March, as the outbreak came under control in China and began spreading in other countries, China’s position became much more aggressive – by contrasting China’s “success” to other countries’ “failure” in disease control, Beijing has tried to showcase the effectiveness, superiority, therefore, desirability of its political system not only to the Chinese people but also to the rest of the world. Through sharing China’s “wisdom” and providing public goods such as medical assistance to countries most affected by the COVID, China is turning the crisis into an opportunity to demonstrate China’s credibility and benevolence.
As the world discusses whether the “China Model” of disease control is applicable in democratic countries, what exactly is the China Model? The Chinese reaction to COVID-19 has featured complete lockdown of cities with major outbreaks, mandatory social distancing for all population, de facto shutdown of its economy to force the outbreak curve to flatten. Important measures to tackle the spread of the disease include massive and frequent testing on all levels, turning stadiums and hotels into quarantine facilities, separating healthy population, suspected cases, confirmed cases with no symptoms, mild symptoms and severe symptoms, and concentrating medical resources to most affected areas.
Under the banner of “people’s war against the disease”, the mass mobilization of the population produced a strong sense of comradery among the Chinese people and a large number of volunteers assisting in the effort. The Chinese people are genuinely proud of the valor, the courage and the exceptional gallantry exhibited by so many in the face of overwhelming difficulty. The tremendous sacrifice and the unimaginable human costs is endured and honored by everyone who lived through this extreme adversity. The nation, its unity and cohesiveness have strengthened as the result of the disease.
Through sharing China’s “wisdom” and providing public goods such as medical assistance to countries most affected by the COVID, China is turning the crisis into an opportunity to demonstrate China’s credibility and benevolence.
However, this pride and unity do not negate the discontent among many toward the state, especially over how the government had failed to detect, report and tackle the crisis early on, as well as the injustice demonstrated throughout the process, such as the reprimand of the eight whistleblower doctors. On that, China’s performance is much less encouraging. The blame game has enabled the government to push the responsibility downwards from the central level to the local level, and then from the local level to grassroot-level hospitals and officials. The calling for the government to conduct thorough investigation of the failed chain of command is exceedingly strong. However, the chance of that investigation remains dim. Government accountability in China historically has been vertical (to the superior) rather than horizonal (to the society). China enjoy advantages unique to its political system in a public health crisis like COVID-19. However, it also suffers critical deficiencies due to the disadvantages and vulnerabilities of the same system.