There’s no doubt that China’s coronavirus response, like that of many other East Asian states, has been far more successful than Western Europe’s or the disastrous failures of the United States. After the initial outbreak in Wuhan, the coronavirus appears to have been successfully contained, mass testing introduced, and the country’s borders effectively sealed—all while maintaining strong supply chains and dampening some of the worst of the considerable economic damage.
But that success comes from very clear roots of state control, not public trust or civil society. After an initial and disastrous cover-up, the systems that allowed the government to successfully act are the same ones that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses to maintain its control over citizens—and that are currently being used as part of a campaign of mass imprisonment and cultural genocide against Uighurs and other minorities in the western region of Xinjiang. Those systems were already in place in most of China—from tracking people’s movement via their phones to a widespread camera system linked to facial recognition technology, mixed with lower-tech methods including police databases of supposedly suspect individuals such as religious believers and critical thinkers. This omnipresent domestic control apparatus is funded out of a so-called stability maintenance budget larger than that for national defense. These systems are not necessary for success, as Taiwan and South Korea have shown, but in China they proved critical. Up until the pandemic, these systems were often relatively lightly applied outside Xinjiang, but they’ve now been turned on with full force almost everywhere.
Take one of the most useful elements of the system: neighborhood committees. These groups, mostly made up of retirees in their 60s or older, played a critical role in monitoring households for compliance with quarantines and in securing supplies for people in need. There is an element in them that mimics, in a highly limited way, a functioning civil society; they can be vehicles for complaints about local services or discussions of group projects—or for just hanging out and complaining about young people nowadays.
Yet their primary function and reason for existence is spying on their neighbors for the government’s ends—a useful tool during the pandemic but an oppressive and dangerous one in ordinary times. In Xinjiang, that can mean reporting people to be dispatched to the camps for crimes such as private prayer or talking to a relative overseas. In Beijing, they played a critical role in the destruction of the city’s neighborhoods and the driving out of migrant workers. Similar committees already had an unholy history as the eyes and ears of one-party states such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany before the CCP adopted them.
To be sure, surveys show high levels of trust in the government in China. But that’s hardly surprising in an environment where to express distrust in the government is to risk prison. The absurdly high levels of trust cited in surveys—84 percent, for instance—bear no resemblance to reality, for the simple reason that when asked by a stranger whether they trust the authorities, people in authoritarian systems have learned the hard way that it’s better to say “yes”—and to praise the all-powerful central authorities for their supposed virtue while reserving their cynicism about the lower levels of government. As the chengyu goes, “The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.”
As ever, behavior tells us more than surveys in a country where, for instance, people famously avoid helping up fallen older people out of fear of entanglement with the police and where they adapt their criticism of local authorities to avoid implicating the party itself. That was a problem once much discussed in the Chinese media during the relatively open Hu Jintao era; under current President Xi Jinping’s insistence on “positive energy,” those stories soon vanished. For all that vaunted trust in central authorities, the moment Beijing finally confirmed widespread rumors about the coronavirus, local towns and villages spontaneously started putting up their own barricades to keep out untrustworthy outsiders.
That brings us to a core problem: It’s impossible to effectively gauge public opinion, or even to know what’s really going on, in an environment as brutally censored as Xi’s China. Xi himself is, of course, publicly praised from all angles—because there is no other choice. Even well-funded propaganda outlets sometimes accidentally cross the line, after all. Condemning his handling of the country or calling for political reform gets even the privileged into trouble, while the young simply disappear one day. The sheer weight of his presence is such that even pundits who praised the peaceful transfer of the party leadership mysteriously discovered that its abolition was actually a good thing after Xi got rid of it. If the rumored pushback against Xi ever succeeds, no doubt they will rapidly disavow his excesses as smoothly as any 1970s apparatchik disavowed the Gang of Four.
It’s been equally impossible—or at least very difficult—to know about the failings of the pandemic response ever since the censors began to crack down on the brave reporting of relatively independent outlets such as Caixin. The Chinese government, meanwhile, has expelled 19 foreign reporters who might have been able—not through any greater talent but through simple lack of censorship—to paint a more honest picture. The early days of the pandemic, when the sheer level of disruption allowed for more freedom to report, saw stories of disabled people starving to death, for instance, and of families being bankrupted by hospital charges. Such stories don’t take away from an honest accounting of successes, but the level of effort put into suppressing them suggests a far more mixed and painful picture. Citizen journalists, for instance, have been disappeared for questioning the official narrative.
And, of course, the people who have paid the highest price for the response are not members of the comfortable Shanghai elite. They’re the migrant workers who remain trapped in their home villages, who were discriminated against and even jailed merely for having a hukou, or residency registration, issued in coronavirus-hit Hubei province (bitterly mirroring the earlier experience of Uighurs, who found that their mere arrival in a city prompted the police to turn up), and who were systematically driven out of the cities they wanted to live in even before the pandemic. They remain without a voice, especially from the party that once claimed to represent the rural poor but now celebrates the rich in its sham parliament.
If you want to prosper inside the Chinese system, then the temptation must be very great to reimagine the nature of that system in ways that benefit yourself—whether it’s to claim that China respects the rule of law when that law is defined as serving the party or to claim that civil society is thriving as the United Front Work Department, which co-opts other bodies or groups to serve party ends, is given ever more authority and all forms of independent expression are crushed. The price of being a successful businessperson who dares to speak against the party, such as Ren Zhiqiang, has been made very clear.
Honest speakers, in such times, remain silent. Brave ones speak up—and pay the price.