The SARS outbreak nearly two decades ago wasn’t simply a public health crisis. For the Communist Party of China (CPC) the epidemic presented a severe political crisis that threatened its ruling legitimacy.
In early 2003, amid mounting international concern and domestic disquiet, the CPC sacked Meng Xuenong, who had only been appointed as Beijing’s mayor three months earlier. He was blamed for failing to handle the way information about the disease and its spread was being reported to the public.
Meng’s departure won loud applause and was taken as a sign of more accountable governance under new Party boss Hu Jintao, who took over in November 2002 as the SARS virus started to spread in southern China.
More importantly it helped to calm public anger, although Meng would make a return to ministerial rank five months later when he was appointed to oversee a multi-billion project to channel water from southern to northern China. (Later he was named acting governor of Shanxi province, but fired less than a year later for mishandling deadly mudslides. Incredibly he made another comeback in 2010, this time with a key post on the CPC’s Central Committee.)
Nevertheless the CPC threw its full political weight into averting the 2003 crisis. Wang Qishan, now China’s vice president after retiring as the anti-corruption tsar in 2017, was parachuted in from Hainan, becoming the new Beijing mayor. Wang immediately put stringent quarantine controls in place. A new hospital was built in the Chinese capital in just seven days. Timely updates of the situation were relayed to the public, as well as the international community. The SARS outbreak was soon brought under control.
How much of that sounds familiar? Since December last year another type of coronavirus has been wreaking havoc in China. In some ways the virus in question – named Covid-19 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) this week – is presenting an even bigger threat. Has China learned from its previous experience?
The latest update
Covid-19 has proved far more contagious than SARS. The latter infected more than 8,000 people worldwide, mainly in mainland China and Hong Kong, over an eight-month period.
For Covid-19, the local government in Wuhan first announced 41 confirmed cases in late December yet by this morning the total had jumped to 64,627 across China. Fortunately the latest strain of virus has a lower fatality rate. But its more rapid spread means more infections. While SARS killed nearly 800 (or roughly one in 10 infected), Covid-19 has led to over 1,486 deaths so far (of which only three are outside mainland China), equating with a death rate of about 2.3% of those infected.
Hubei is at the epicentre of the pandemic. The province has reported over 1,426 deaths so far. The Hubei government said on Thursday that 36,719 patients are still receiving treatment in hospital, and 1,685 of them are in critical conditions.
Confirmed cases have been reported in other countries although the number of locally transmitted infections is low.
Are there any positive signs?
In an encouraging signal, experts from the WHO noted this week that the spread of the virus has not been accelerating outside Hubei. In fact, the number of new infections outside the province fell for the eighth day in a row as of Wednesday.
That has healthcare specialists speculating that the outbreak could be about to reach an inflection point where the number of confirmed cases starts to drop – at least outside Hubei.
A month ago many were warning of a nightmarish scenario in which the viral infection would spread uncontrollably as hundreds of millions of people rushed home to spend the Chinese New Year, which began on January 25.
The Chinese government seems to have succeeded in preventing this from happening, thanks to a slew of unprecedented measures. That included the complete lockdown of a dozen of the most populated cities in Hubei, including its capital Wuhan. The Spring Festival holiday period was also extended for nearly a week (some local governments outside Hubei extended it even longer) in a bid to prevent the virus from spreading further.
Since the beginning of this month, the number of recovered patients has outpaced the death toll as well. As of today, almost 6,000 people had been discharged. This implies a recovery rate of close to 10% and compares with just 1.3% of cases in late January. Healthcare officials also predicted this week that the proportion of discharged patients might go higher thanks to “reinforced measures” that combine Western treatments with traditional Chinese medicine.
When will the crisis come to an end?
“I hope this outbreak or this event may be over in something like April,” Zhong Nanshan, head of the National Health Commission team tackling Covid-19, told Reuters in an interview this week.
The epidemiologist won fame for combating the SARS epidemic and many Chinese put great store in the 83 year-old’s comments.
Based on recent events, as well as forecasts, government action and AI-assisted data assessment, Zhong predicts that the number of confirmed cases could peak in mid or late February, followed by a flattening off in new infections, and then a gradual decline.
But in a separate conference call with the Global Times this week, Zhong qualified his more optimistic tone with a warning that the situation in Wuhan was still very challenging. Indeed, on Thursday dramatically bigger numbers were released for newly confirmed cases of infection as Hubei changed its diagnostic criteria (to be more in line with that used in the rest of the country). The new method saw suspected patients added – i.e. those that were clinically diagnosed based on symptoms but who’d not yet tested positive using lab kits – and this added 14,840 new cases on Wednesday alone. (This morning Hubei reported 4,823 new cases, a fairly steep drop.)
Is China’s political system well placed to tackle the crisis?
The CPC’s political bosses have termed the fight against the outbreak as “the people’s war”. Chinese President Xi Jinping, for one, has started to make more public appearances, wearing a surgical mask. “The outbreak is a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance, and we must sum up the experience and draw a lesson from it,” the seven-man Standing Committee of the Politburo said in a statement last week.
One argument is that China’s political system is better suited to containing the spread of a viral disease. For instance, the complete lock-down of Wuhan, a logistics hub with a population of over 11 million, might have only been possible in a country like China. Various street-level Party organisations (like the one previously responsible for reporting breaches of the One-Child Policy) have also helped to make the unprecedented quarantine more effective. So much so that Bloomberg noted in a news article last week that “China sacrifices a province [Hubei] to save the world from coronavirus”.
Such drastic action is made possible by China’s so-called “nationwide system”. This designation enables the central authorities to get the wider machinery of government to work collectively on plans or objectives, often with a massive dedication of manpower and other resources. A prior example of the ‘nationwide system’ kicking into high gear was the rescue and relief mission initiated after Sichuan province was hit by a deadly earthquake in 2008.
The result is an ability to concentrate the country’s resources on tackling major problems in times of crisis. “I have never seen, in my life, this kind of mobilisation,” said World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, after a two-day trip this month, during which he was informed how the Chinese were constructing two new hospitals in Wuhan from scratch (see this week’s “Healthcare” section).
Xi Jinping also gave a rallying cry last month calling on all the Party committees inside companies and local governments to make “an all-out effort to tackle the outbreak based on the directions of the Party leadership”.
No wonder then that private sector firms and business tycoons have been rushing to offer support to crisis-stricken areas (see this week’s “A collective effort”).
But weaknesses have been exposed too?
The CPC’s leadership has also admitted to “shortcomings and deficiencies” in the response to the Covid-19 outbreak. A rare mea culpa from the Politburo Standing Committee this month acknowledged that the country’s “emergency management system” needed to be improved.
Other aspects of the handling of the crisis are being queried both at home and abroad. The foremost question: whether the authorities alerted the public to the dangers of the virus in a timely enough fashion. Anger about how the government initially responded has also deepened as a result of the death of Li Wenliang. The Wuhan-based doctor sought to warn people about the potential dangers of the Covid-19 but was reprimanded by police in early January for “spreading rumours” about the virus.
Li died last week having been infected by Covid-19. According to Reuters, even Zhong Nanshan was reduced to tears in talking about Li during an interview. “The majority of the people think he’s a hero of China,” Zhong said. “I’m so proud of him, he told people the truth, at the end of December, and then he passed away.”
However, the Global Times warned in another article on Wednesday that Zhong’s tears were being “twisted and politicised by some as a challenge to the Chinese authorities”. The 83 year-old’s response to Li’s death, the newspaper explained, was simply an outburst of emotion by a frontline medical worker under immense pressure.
For the time being the local authorities in Wuhan and Hubei are bearing the blame for the region’s predicament. Wuhan’s mayor Zhou Xianwang is a particular target, since telling state broadcaster CCTV in late January that his administration had failed to reveal information about the outbreak in a timely manner. Ma Guoqiang – who till Thursday outranked Zhou as Wuhan’s Communist Party boss – also appeared on the programme to take some of the responsibility himself. “I feel ashamed of myself,” Ma said. “If we had taken strong measures earlier, the situation would be much better.”
Both officials offered to resign although Zhou then seemed to suggest that the delay in publicising the danger was not entirely his fault. “Because it is an infectious disease, and we have the infectious disease prevention law to regulate information disclosure, as a local government after we have the information, we can only reveal it after approval,” he explained.
More heads will roll?
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported on Thursday that Ma had been replaced as the Wuhan’s top official. Even higher up the food chain, the Party Secretary of Hubei province has also been ousted over his “botched response” to the health crisis, the newspaper said.
He is being replaced by Ying Yong, previously Shanghai’s mayor. Ying is considered to be “a close ally” of President Xi, the SCMP commented.
China’s ‘nationwide system’ has turned out to be efficient in containing the worst of the outbreak, Hong Kong’s Singtao Daily concludes. But the initial spread of the virus has again exposed the flaws in the country’s ‘top-down’ political culture, where power is too concentrated in the upper echelons and there is reluctance at local level to report bad news or encourage whistleblowing.
Curiously the domestic media has also been silent over the fate of the country’s annual political jamboree, due next month. The National People’s Congress (and its consultative arm, the CPPCC) usually meets in the capital at the start of March, bringing 4,000 bigwigs to Beijing. It’s exactly the sort of mass gathering that is being cancelled elsewhere in the country due to the coronavirus crisis but dropping the NPC would be unusual and embarrassing – it hasn’t been cancelled since the Cultural Revolution (it was even held in March 2003 at the height of the SARS outbreak).
This time some analysts think it will be delayed as it would be awkward for the country’s leaders to follow the normal agenda of setting out the country’s achievements at the annual event. But others predicted that Xi might choose to press ahead with the meeting if the infection figures are showing signs of improvement, allowing him to declare victory over the epidemic.
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