How China beat the virus and roared back

The Chinese government, which sputtered at the beginning of last year, owing to the impact of the debilitating coronavirus pandemic, happens to be the only major economy that has returned to steady growth
How China beat the virus and roared back

Chennai

The Chinese Communist Party reached deep into private business and the broader population to drive a recovery, an authoritarian approach that has emboldened its top leader, Xi Jinping. The order came on the night of Jan. 12, days after a new outbreak of the coronavirus flared in Hebei, a province bordering Beijing. The Chinese government’s plan was bold and blunt: it needed to erect entire towns of prefabricated housing to quarantine people, a project that would start the next morning. Part of the job fell to Wei Ye, the owner of a construction company, which would build and install 1,300 structures on commandeered farmland. Everything — the contract, the plans, the orders for materials — was “all fixed in a few hours,” Wei said, adding that he and his employees worked exhaustively to meet the tight deadline.
“There is pressure, for sure,” he said, but he was “very honoured” to do his part. In the year since the coronavirus began its march around the world, China has done what many other countries would not or could not do. With equal measures of coercion and persuasion, it has mobilised its vast Communist Party apparatus to reach deep into the private sector and the broader population, in what the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, has called a “people’s war” against the pandemic — and won. China is now reaping long-lasting benefits that few expected when the virus first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and the leadership seemed as rattled as at any moment since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. The success has positioned China well, economically and diplomatically, to push back against the United States and others worried about its seemingly inexorable rise. It has also emboldened Xi, who has offered China’s experience as a model for others to follow. While officials in Wuhan initially dithered and obfuscated for fear of political reprisals, the authorities now leap into action at any sign of new infections, if at times with excessive zeal. In Hebei this January, the authorities deployed their well-honed strategy to test millions and isolate entire communities — all with the goal of getting cases, officially only dozens a day in a population of 1.4 billion, back to zero.
The government has poured money into infrastructure projects, its playbook for years, while extending loans and tax relief to support business and avoid pandemic-related layoffs. China, which sputtered at the beginning of last year, is the only major economy that has returned to steady growth. When it came to developing vaccines, the government offered land, loans and subsidies for new factories to make them, along with fast-tracking approvals. Two Chinese vaccines are in mass production; more are on the way. While the vaccines have shown weaker efficacy rates than those of Western rivals, 24 countries have already signed up for them since the pharmaceutical companies have, at Beijing’s urging, promised to deliver them more quickly. Other nations, like New Zealand and South Korea, have done well containing the virus without heavy-handed measures that would be politically unacceptable in a democratic system. To China’s leaders, those countries do not compare.
Beijing’s successes in each dimension of the pandemic — medical, diplomatic and economic — have reinforced its conviction that an authoritarian capacity to quickly mobilise people and resources gave China a decisive edge that other major powers like the United States lacked. It is an approach that emphasizes a relentless drive for results and relies on an acquiescent public. The Communist Party, in this view, must control not only the government and state-owned enterprises, but also private businesses and personal lives, prioritizing the collective good over individual interests. “They were able to pull together all of the resources of the one-party state,” said Carl Minzner, a professor of Chinese law and politics at Fordham University. “This of course includes both the coercive tools — severe, mandatory mobility restrictions for millions of people — but also highly effective bureaucratic tools that are maybe unique to China.” In so doing, the Chinese Communist authorities suppressed speech, policed and purged dissenting views and suffocated any notion of individual freedom or mobility — actions that are repugnant and unacceptable in any democratic society.
Among the Communist Party leaders, a sense of vindication is palpable. In the final days of 2020, the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s top political body, gathered in Beijing for the equivalent of an annual performance review, where in theory they can air criticisms of themselves and their colleagues. Far from even hinting at any shortcomings — the rising global distrust toward China, for example — they exalted the party leadership. “The present-day world is undergoing a great transformation of the kind not seen for a century,” Xi told officials at another meeting in January, “but time and momentum are on our side.”
In recent weeks, as new cases kept emerging, the government’s cabinet, the State Council, issued a sweeping new directive. “There cannot be a shred of neglect about the risk of resurgence,” it said. The dictates reflected the micromanaged nature of China’s political system, where the top leaders have levers to reach down from the corridors of central power to every street and even apartment building. The State Council ordered provinces and cities to set up 24-hour command centers with officials in charge held responsible for their performance. It called for opening enough quarantine centers not just to house people within 12 hours of a positive test, but also to strictly isolate hundreds of close contacts for each positive case.
Cities with up to five million people should create the capacity to administer a nucleic test to every resident within two days. Cities with more than five million could take three to five days. The key to this mobilisation lies in the party’s ability to tap its vast network of officials, which is woven into every department and agency in every region. The government appeals to material interests, as well as to a sense of patriotism, duty and self-sacrifice. The China Railway 14th Bureau Group, a state-owned contractor helping build the quarantine center near Shijiazhuang, drafted a public vow that its workers would spare no effort. “Don’t haggle over pay, don’t fuss about conditions, don’t fall short even if it’s life or death,” the group said in a letter, signed with red thumb prints of employees.
The writers are reporters with NYT©2020

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