A reaction against China's official response to the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak has left officials and the central government struggling to counter responsibility. Although the central government has accused local officials of “inefficient”, the local government reminded the public that it cannot disseminate information in real time through a very centralized system of information control. Meanwhile, about 40,000 people have been infected in China and over a thousand have died.
First, fault of the Chinese New Year
Despite having received notification of the deadly illness in early December 2019, it took Chinese officials more than six weeks to publicly admit that the public health situation had reached crisis levels.
A visit by Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang to Wuhan on January 20 marked the first public recognition of the severity of the outbreak. That visit became controversial as it happened only two days after the local government of Wuhan held a public banquet for the Chinese New Year attended by more than 40,000 people despite knowing all the risks.
As it explains Huang Yanzhong, health expert and author of Health Regulations in contemporary China, in a podcast:
The local government, in order not to ruin the atmosphere, decided not to report the actual situation.
The local government, in order not to ruin the atmosphere, decided not to report on the real situation.
Then the local government is blamed
After Li Keqiang's visit to Wuhan, the Chinese Government moved to what is known as a guilty tactic and dismissed members of the local government in order to maintain the prestige of the central government and, above all, of the Chinese Communist Party (PCC ).
The first to take the blame was the mayor of Wuhan, Zhou Xianwang, who tried to apologize for the now famous banquet:
The reason why the Baibuting community continued to host the banquet this year was based on the previous judgment that the spread of the epidemic was limited between humans, so there was not enough warning.
The reason why the Baibuting community continued to organize the banquet this year was based on the previous trial that the spread of the epidemic was limited among humans, so there was not enough warning.
As planned, Zhou, along with Governor Wang Xiadong and Ma Guoqiang, secretary of the Wuhan Party, in Hubei Province (where Wuhan is located), also gave a press conference on January 26. The conference became a great disaster as both officers showed a lack of knowledge about the crisis with blunt statements that increased panic among the public.
First, Governor Wang failed three times to answer a simple question about the number of masks available to the local population. The number of 10 800 million decreased to 1080 million to 1.08 million. The video of the press conference was widely disseminated on Chinese social networks and on Twitter:
湖北省 长 王晓东 在 1 月 26 日晚 的 湖北 新型 肺炎 疫情 防控 工作 发布会 直播 现场 ， 对 武汉 地区 口罩 生产 数量 ， 先 说 年产量 108 亿 只 ， 过了一会 下面 递上 来 小 纸条 ， 就说 是 口误 改成 18 亿 只 ， 然后 再说 口误 改成 108 万 只。
链接 还能 看 重播 ， 47 分钟 之后 和 59 分钟 之后。
看完 简直 要 疯 了。 https://t.co/8b34kYoxqn pic.twitter.com/wMenBWumhe
– 冥王星 (@ charon66192915) January 26, 2020
The governor of Hubei Province, Wang Xiaodong, on the night of January 26 during the press conference on the prevention of the new type of pneumonia epidemic, referring to the number of masks produced in Wuhan. First he said that the annual production was 10 800 million pieces. After a while he said it was 1800 million and then changed again to 1.08 million.
The links can also be reproduced after minute 47 and 59.
After seeing it I have gone crazy.
The error gave life to memes of mockery of the incapacity of the local government and that showed their lack of preparation. During the m, sma conference, officials also showed lack of coordination:
While Governor Wang said that medical supplies were in short supply in Hubei, Mayor Zhou declared that the shortage had been mitigated.
While Governor Wang said medical supplies were scarce in Hubei, Mayor Zhou declared that the shortage had been mitigated.
Then the ax fell on health officials:
Party Secretary of Health Commission of Hubei Province Zhang Jin and director of the Hubei Provincial Health Commission Liu Yingzi were removed from their posts. The two posts will be taken over by Wang Hesheng, a Standing Committee member of the CPC Hubei Provincial Committee. pic.twitter.com/AnGOVOvDOw
– People's Daily, China (@PDChina) February 11, 2020
Zhang Jin and Liu Yingzi, respectively Party secretary and director of the Health Commission of Hubei Province, have been dismissed from their posts. The two positions will be held by Wang Hesheng, a member of the Permanent Board of the Hubei Provincial Committee of the PCC.
What if the central government were also guilty?
During a television interview on January 27, Mayor Zhou submitted his resignation and assumed all the blame:
Comrade Ma Guoqiang and I are willing to accept responsibility. If in the end you say someone has to be held accountable, you say the masses are not satisfied, then we’re willing to appease the world by resigning.
Comrade Ma Guoqiang and I are willing to take responsibility. If, in the end, you say that someone has to take responsibility, you are saying that the masses are not satisfied, then we will be willing to reassure the world by resigning.
But while his statement on January 27 drags the party line, before Zhou had made an unusual statement during the visit of Prime Minister Li Keqiang to Wuhan on January 20:
As a local government official, after I get this kind of information I still have to wait for authorization before I can release it.
As a local government official, after obtaining this type of information I still have to wait for the authorization before I can publish it.
Although barely veiled, this statement is a direct criticism of the regime of President Xi Jinping. Since taking office in 2013, Xi has been accumulating huge powers within the central government, and for the provinces, that means little space for the local decision-making process on sensitive issues.
As Jude Blanchette researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington explains:
Central-local relations in the Xi era have seen a severe diminishment of local-level autonomy, which has led to municipal and village officials waiting for clear signals from above before they take action.
Relations between central and local (Government) in the Xi era have seen a severe decline in autonomy at the local level, which has led municipal and village officials to wait for clear signals from above before taking action.
Despite Beijing's claims, the central government may deserve a good part of the blame. On January 11, the team sent to Wuhan concluded that everything was under control. “The status of the patients and the situation of the epidemic are currently controllable,” said Wang Guangfa, a member of the national team of medical experts who deals with the situation.
However, in a cruel and ironic turn, Wang Guangfa was contaminated with the virus. This sense of bitter irony is not lost in local Wuhan officials and other places.
Xi Jinping has maintained an unusual low profile since the visit of Prime Minister Li Keqiang. This was interpreted as a form of political self-protection since the result of the fight against the coronavirus remains uncertain.
However, Xi will not be able to stay out of the spotlight for a long time. On March 5, 2020, China will hold its annual “Two Meetings” (两会 in Chinese), annual plenary sessions of the two bodies that vote on national political decisions.
As Victor Shih, a researcher of the Chinese elites, pointed out, the isolation of Xi and the elimination of the other candidates can prove to be very dangerous to handle because of his political image, if not for his continuity:
“Politically, I think he is discovering that having total dictatorial power has a downside, which is that when things go wrong or have a high risk of going wrong, then you also have to bear all the responsibility,” Victor Shih, of UCSanDiego https://t.co/UaFUMpQynr via @NYTimes
– Michael Slackman (@meslackman) February 9, 2020
Where is Xi? China's leader leads the fight against the coronavirus from safe heights.
Xi Jinping has stepped back from the spotlight while the country faces its worst crisis in years, and reflects on the political risks it faces to contain the virus.
“Politically, I think he is discovering that having a total dictatorial power has its negative side, that is, when things go wrong or have a high risk of going bad, then you also have to take full responsibility.” Victor Shih, of U.C. San Diego
Check out Global Voices special coverage on the impact of Wuhan coronavirus.