Hui Wen Zheng

As China enters a new nationalist era under Xi Jinping’s ethos of strength and prosperity, its reputation as the source of COVID-19 comes at an inconvenient time. After initial suppression, China shared news of COVID-19 and its genetic sequence with the World Health Organization (WHO) on 7 January 2020, but the virus would make few international headlines until the complete lockdown of Wuhan two weeks later. Although the lockdown was initially dubbed “draconian,” many countries such as Italy and the United Kingdom enforced similar restrictions a few months later. However, China’s COVID-19 response remains distinct for its censorship, the intensity of its containment measures, and its reliance on digital tools to manage the process of reopening.

These characteristics are a feature of the Chinese Community Party’s (CCP) institutional structure. Despite being part of a unitary government, local authorities are tasked with interpreting and implementing the central government’s mandates, incentivizing local cadres to save face and impress their superiors by suppressing negative news. Thus, when medical professionals (such as Dr. Li Wenliang) first mentioned the mysterious virus in private group chats in late December 2019, Wuhan authorities censored the news and punished participants in the chats for “disturbing social order.” But China’s earlier botched response to the 2003 SARS outbreak taught lessons that led to an improved national virus tracking system, which prompted a quicker eventual acknowledgment from the central government about COVID-19.

Following this recognition, institutional incentives once again came into play in provinces’ subsequent “race to the top” to demonstrate the strictest containment measures. Lockdowns in China were therefore sudden, total, and repeated across geographies. Wuhan’s two-and-a-half-month lockdown limited all outings to one family member every other day for necessities only, closed all schools and entertainment venues, and suspended all internal travel. Similar measures were taken to handle later outbreaks along the China-Russia border. Enforcement was made possible by urban China’s high level of apartment living, which facilitated residential compound blockades and strict monitoring of entry and exit movements by local party volunteers. However, this standard appears to be changing with the recent resurgence of the virus in Beijing and Wuhan being handled by widespread nucleic acid testing (in Wuhan’s case, testing almost 10 million residents in two weeks) and targeted neighbourhood lockdowns.

Still, widespread testing was not always an option. A testing bottleneck in January and February resulted in many patients being turned away by overwhelmed hospitals and a reliance on clinical diagnoses by CT scans. The strain on hospitals is a result of China’s low-functioning primary healthcare system, which prompted the rapid construction of several emergency field hospitals in an action reminiscent of the SARS outbreak. Sick patients were forcibly placed under free out-of-home quarantine in makeshift facilities while international travellers were required to pay for a fourteen-day hotel quarantine to prevent spreading the virus within households. Eventually, it would be China’s reputation as the “factory of the world” that enabled it to increase testing. Domestic genomics companies such as Shenzhen-based BGI set up testing laboratories across major cities to boost efforts.

Such aggressive actions also meant that, while parts of the world grappled with rising case numbers, most of China had reopened its economy by May, facilitated by strict digital surveillance. Entry to public spaces in many cities required a mask, a temperature check, and the use of a colour-based “health code” app developed by regional governments and hosted on popular platforms such as WeChat and Alipay. However, the nontransparent way that the app assigns individuals their health status has resulted in frustration amid reports of mislabelling, loopholes, and a lack of cross-regional recognition.

Despite the apparent effectiveness of China’s measures in slowing the initial outbreak and preventing a major “second wave,” several barriers stand in the way of analysts’ ability to clearly evaluate its response. Although the government released total case numbers, low initial testing capacity and poor rural healthcare infrastructure likely means official figures are an undercount. Despite clear government communication about the virus, Internet censorship increased to the point that even neutral news was removed from social media platforms. By placing greater pressure on companies to “self-discipline” their content, the CCP’s institutional censorship incentives caused organizations to overcompensate in response to government demands. Stories like that of a boy with cerebral palsy who died after his only caretaker was forced to quarantine highlight the tragedies brought on by the country’s uncompromising pandemic response. Moreover, reports out of Guangzhou show how local government officials discriminatively enacted compulsory testing and quarantine on African nationals regardless of their travel history, throwing a wrench in Sino-African relations.

As the CCP attempts to build its international reputation despite the COVID-19 pandemic through actions such as contributing USD 50 million to the WHO, popular judgment of its actions will undoubtedly have lasting political implications. For its strict quarantines, mass surveillance, and repression, China’s actions vis-à-vis other countries’ need to be examined to shed light on whether the trade-offs in its COVID-19 response will have been worthwhile.

Part of the COVID Comparative Project. View the complete series.