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Report prepared by Ms Naireen Khan, Research Intern USI of India

Speaker: Brig. Vivek Verma

ModeratorMaj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, AVSM, VSM (Retd), Head CS3

The Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation (CS3), USI organized a web discussion on the ‘Emerging Internal Dynamics in China due to COVID Handling by the CCP’ on 28 April 2020.  Following were the key takeaways from the session:

China’s Immediate Responses to COVID-19

  • China’s response to the COVID- 19 crisis has been underpinned by authoritarian governance, President Xi Jingping’s leadership and enforcing people to respond through stringent means. There are reports that leadership was aware of the virus much earlier, but the centralized system of governance interfered with the response and information of the its virulent nature being made available globally.
  • The Chinese government’s response to the epidemic was shaped by its centralised command system under President Xi Jingping, who began the meetings only from 31st Dec 2019. He held 10 meetings of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the CCP. Premier Li Keqiang was made in charge of leading small group of epidemic control with 32 departments established under its wing, as late as on 26 Jan 2020. However, the bulk of the people deputed to this group those who were essentially involved in propaganda through their career.
  • Quasi wartime mechanisms were also adopted such as PLA’s Logistics Command being activated, and 19 provincial regions being paired with 16 cities to prepare for a Hubei like outbreak. However, these were done after the epidemic had already affected most of the provinces of China.
  • A big data surveillance program was put in place to improve the precision and efficiency of epidemic investigation. Two widely used mobile phone applications, AliPay and WeChat helped enforce restrictions as they allowed the government to keep track of people’s movements. Colour codes on mobile phones in which green, yellow or red indicate a person’s health were used to prevent people with confirmed infections from travelling.
  • Bloomberg, and many Chinese observers have commented on the 21 million mobile users who are mysteriously missing from Chinese official statistics, since the start of this pandemic. It does lead many citizens and the nations to question China’s official figures of the affected cases and casualties.
  • In order to keep the citizenry updated, the Prevention and Control Mechanism of the State Council provided daily briefings. Yet, doubts abound due to the opaque nature of the data being given by the government.

Shaping the Local Narrative in the Aftermath of the First Wave

  • The Chinese people’s self-discipline and willingness to sacrifice during the lockdown is being highlighted by the CCP to extol the virtues of China’s governance system. Despite that, there has been extensive criticism of the leadership, and the way the crisis was handled, on Chinese social media.
  • China’s state-controlled media in a bid to sanitize the country’s image focused the local and international attention on the creation of two hospitals of 2000 beds each overnight.
  • Domestically the use of traditional Chinese medicines have been advocated. Around 70,000 people were administered traditional elixirs, out of which 90 percent allegedly recovered.
  • The CCP has used the crisis to trump up nationalism by commending the spirit of the Chinese society to bear hardships and juxtaposing China’s strict measures to the slow responses of the West.
  • A narrative of stigmatization and victimhood has been evoked with regards to the U.S. questioning the dubious origins of the virus in Wuhan and Beijing’s tacit complicity in the matter.

Challenges Faced by the CCP

  • Controlling the narrative– In order to correct the narrative a Research Paper Sanitization Directive has been issued to all institutions. Sponsored research is also being made public. One such report titled ‘China’s Fight against COVID-19’ has been jointly compiled by China Watch International, Institute for Contemporary Chinese Studies, Xinhua University and School of Health and Policy Management, Peking Medical College. There has been large scale screening of online activity to control and monitor the flow of information to the Chinese media. The national library has been incorporated by the CCP to enlarge and legitimize its domestic narrative of efficiency in dealing with COVID-19. Moreover, the repatriation of Chinese diasporas, the legislation of bio security and waste management laws as well as effectively curbing imported epidemic infections are some of the other issues that the CCP will have to effectively address to influence a positive public opinion.
  • Economic Stabilization– As per the National Statistical Commission of China, the quarter between January and March has recorded a GDP drop by 6.8%. The quarterly utilization of industrial capacity and household consumption each has fallen by 10%. While the GDP growth has come down by 6.8%, the info transmission has registered an increase of 13%. There has also been a jump in the high-tech manufacturing sector, with a jump of almost 35% in the auto vending machines. The unemployment rate stands at 5.9% which according to China’s official statistical commission is not staggering. Yet doubts abound about the veracity of these figures, considering that Chinese economy is completely dependent on exports, and there is a global lock down in place.
  • The industrial profit has decreased by 38.3% due to capital flight. Major brunt has been faced by the foreign funded enterprises which have incurred a profit decline of 54.4%. The downward trend of economies across the world has increased uncertainty and instability in the Chinese economy. Wuhan being a transport and industrial hub contributed almost 62% to the Hubei province foreign trade apart from housing 300 out of 500 foreign companies present in China.
  • The unabated downward spiraling of the global economy coupled with the re-shoring of manufacturing hubs from China to other countries will increase unemployment. This could spill over into social unrest and disillusionment with the CCP given that China’s economic success both buttressed and enhanced the legitimacy of an authoritarian government.

Closing Remarks

China’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak that began allegedly due to local malfeasance in Hubei has underscored the micro level domestic fragmentation across functional and regional dimensions of the Chinese political system. Although important indicators such as lifting of the lockdown, factories resuming production and reopening of schools indicate a return to normalcy, it is difficult to ascertain the authenticity and substantive effects of these developments given that the media in China is state controlled. While analyzing China’s internal dynamics, there is more than what meets the eye.

The political shakeup in the Communist Party ranks is symptomatic of Chinese leader’s jitters about the potential of the COVID outbreak to fuel domestic instability.  The prospects of the sixth generation expected to provide a successor to President Xi Jinping receded at the 19th Party Congress, where none of them were made members of the Politburo Standing Committee. Apparently, some of  the seventh generation leaders, vice governors and vice ministers born in the 1970’s, are now being groomed for future leadership roles as indicated by their recent promotions. Notably, the appointment of a military scientist to head Wuhan Institute of Virology and the absence of medical professionals in Leading Small Group appears to be an effort by the CCP to maintain ambiguity and ensure that findings are amenable to the image it wants to portray.

While a large-scale mobilization against the government and decentralization as a result of the COVID crisis is unlikely; undercurrents in its political ranks do not inspire confidence in CCP’s narrative of stability either. Will Xi Jinping be able to weather this storm and emerge stronger? Will he be able to carry forward his dream of continuing into the third term, or will he be purged? Will the ‘China Dream’ survive this pandemic? These are some key issues that the World will watch closely since this likely to have a major impact on the Post-COVID world order.

Report prepared by Ms Naireen Khan, Research Intern USI of India


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