Chinese historian Zhang Lifan told DW the epidemic exposes some critical flaws in China’s governance system, which he says "remains totalitarian and hierarchical," preventing the outbreak from being contained.
DW: What might be the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the Chinese government?
Zhang Lifan: The epidemic exposes the flaws in the modernization of governance that the Chinese government has been boasting about. It is clear that China hasn't truly modernized its governance system, and 17 years after the SARS epidemic, it also hasn't established a public epidemic prevention system.
In a way, this epidemic exposes another kind of virus in China, which is the "virus of bureaucracy." China's governance system remains totalitarian and hierarchical rather than modernized. That's why when Beijing has to deal with a large-scale epidemic, its governance style remains fragile.
Beijing has been trying to control the narrative about the coronavirus epidemic, including censoring relevant conversations online. How do you assess the motivation and impact of Beijing's tight control over freedom of speech?
The Chinese government's mishandling of the epidemic has a lot to do with its censorship. However, in order to maintain the stability of the regime, they have no bandwidth for actually containing the virus outbreak. The most important thing to the Chinese Communist Party is to safeguard its regime.
If we take a look at the people in charge of leading the efforts to contain the virus outbreak, it is obvious that none of them has any expertise in public health. This is an "amateur" team trying to give orders to a group of public health experts, and their real function is not to contain the virus, but to maintain social stability in China.
From the perspective of enforcing censorship, the taskforce has done a brilliant job. CCTV has been broadcasting how developing countries are "praising" China's efforts to contain the epidemic. However, since these are all countries that have taken huge amounts of loans from China, they are paying China back by praising its behaviors unconditionally.
Internationally, China focuses mainly on preventing any kind of criticism towards its mishandling of the epidemic. I believe that they are willing to safeguard the regime by ignoring all the facts and basic ethics.
Do you think this virus outbreak will pose a serious challenge to the Chinese government?
This is one of the most challenging moments in the Chinese Communist Party's 70-year history. The first major crisis it faced was the Great Chinese Famine during Mao Zedong's era, and the second major crisis was the Tiananmen Square Protest in 1989. Now we have this public health crisis.
Unlike the first two crises, the internet has allowed information about the epidemic to be shared very quickly and widely, which exacerbates the level of challenge that the Chinese government has to deal with. Even though Beijing tries to censor online discussion about the coronavirus epidemic, they still can't achieve a total blackout. Chinese people already know most of the facts about the epidemic. Even many Chinese officials probably know that they are lying about the epidemic.
However, this doesn't mean that a large-scale protest is in the making, as some analysts might suggest. From my observation, the Chinese government is monitoring society through tracking the development of the epidemic, and many methods of "maintaining stability" used in this epidemic could be applied to similar events in the future.
Additionally, most people in China are still afraid of dying from the coronavirus, so they would rather stay at home than taking it to the street at a time like this. The Chinese government is taking advantage of this and imposing strict control over road traffic and other aspects of people's everyday life. I think the Chinese government is using this epidemic to strengthen its control over society.
How will the Chinese government handle the epidemic going forward?
The Chinese government is used to sharing positive news and concealing negative news. When they can no longer hide the negative news, they try to find ways to turn negative news into positive news. This also happened during the early stages of the coronavirus epidemic.
When leaders at the highest level didn't say anything about the epidemic, all media outlets reported that the virus is not transmittable between people. However, when an outbreak happened, the entire national system wouldn't start functioning unless the leader gave an order. This is the trait of authoritarian politics.
I think the next thing that China can do is to try to address the real issue. They will likely try to contain the outbreak and at the same time, keep controlling society.
Once they can secure the regime, they will start framing the epidemic as a reflection of the superiority of socialism. I think this is the likely outcome. However, it is still hard to say if the whole epidemic would force a regime change within the Chinese Communist Party or not. Right now, everything is still very murky.
Lifan Zhang is an independent historian and writer. He lives in Beijing.