The coronavirus outbreak in China poses a tremendous test for Beijing. Beyond the immediate public health crisis, the Chinese Communist Party faces a stuttering economy, growing public anger and distrust, and a potentially heavy blow to its global reputation.
The hesitant early response to the outbreak sheds light on the way the Chinese bureaucracy approaches crises at a time when the party leadership is tightening control at almost all levels of society. At first, officials in Wuhan attempted to censor online discussions of the virus. This changed only after President Xi Jinping’s call for a much more robust approach was followed by a sudden increase in the state media coverage of the outbreak. There is no doubt that Xi’s intervention will greatly speed up the response to the crisis, which should be welcomed.
Despite China’s experience with the SARS epidemic between 2002 and 2004, the sluggish reaction by officials in Wuhan should not have come as a surprise. The tendency among bureaucrats to play down crises is deeply entrenched. And, ironically, the party leadership’s recent push for greater bureaucratic accountability and its promise of stiffer punishment for those who take a 'do little' approach have also contributed to the habit of covering up disasters.
Xi has launched an ambitious programme to reform the governance of the Communist Party and re-centralize political control. This has reinforced the tendency of officials to avoid making important decisions and instead to wait for instructions from the party leadership.
For decades, local governments have made things happen in China. But with tighter regulation of lower-level bureaucrats, civil servants across the system now seem less ready, and able, to provide their input, making ineffective and even mistaken policy more likely.
Moreover, the coronavirus outbreak could not have happened at a worse time. Last year was tumultuous and saw China fighting an economic slowdown while also dealing with an increasingly hostile international environment. Now, as the authorities take steps to contain the disease, economic activity has come to a near standstill, with public transport curbed and restaurants and entertainment venues shuttered.
This contrasts with SARS, when double-digit growth in gross domestic product enabled Beijing to raise government expenditure to tackle the outbreak. Today, the Chinese economy is running into some of the most difficult challenges it has faced since the global financial crisis.
In response to the slowdown in growth, Beijing has adopted loose fiscal policy, with an emphasis on public investment. It also continues to push big banks to cut interest rates for individual borrowers and small businesses which were already suffering from the effects of the trade war with the US before the coronavirus struck.
The outbreak should give new impetus to governments, not least those that have close economic ties with China. Being a great power with ambitions for global leadership, as well as domestic reform, is not easy. Even without multi-party elections, it involves increasing, and often uncomfortable, scrutiny. As President Xi himself has put it: the road is long and the task is weighty.
Dr Yu Jie, Senior Research Fellow on China, Asia-Pacific Programme.
This article was originally published in the Financial Times.