Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Hubei Province’s capital, Wuhan, the fatal pandemic has engendered panic and a halt of normality across the globe. In some regions, we are finally beginning to see the long-awaited return to life as we once knew it. Other places remain severely constrained by the ongoing turbulence of Covid-19.
My home of the UK has recently begun to re-open hospitality venues, and after a brutal and emotionally taxing third national lockdown, it seems that we are finally glimpsing the prophesied light at the end of the tunnel. The slow pivot to a semblance of order has come at no small cost to the UK. Mental health has deteriorated, the national economy has suffered, and people’s lives have irreversibly been transformed.
And yet, there is something, as a former expat in Shanghai, that has loomed in my thoughts for some time. Did the Chinese Communist Party prove that it is a superior system to our western democracies?
When the initial murmurs of a new coronavirus emerged from China, Xi Jinping’s state seemed ill-equipped to combat the issue. China watchers worldwide commented on the party-state’s stiff, bureaucratic mechanisms, which left the mayor of Wuhan mired in administrative red tape. Effectively, mayor Zhou Xianwang’s voice was shushed by his superiors, likely those of the Politburo Standing Committee, second only in rank to head of state Xi Jinping.
Despite reports suggesting that locals of Wuhan and surrounding areas of Hubei were fleeing the region, there was no official word on the coronavirus until much later. This is one of the huge distinctions between the British and the Chinese systems. It is at least our belief in the UK that the information of a pandemic would be publicly disseminated with even a rudimentary knowledge of it only. To still panic it seems, Chinese people were kept in the dark for some time.
This level of administrative handling in China eclipses what is known in the UK. The bureaucratic model encourages every relevant official to comment and therefore influence how a decision is made. Understandably, various bureaucracies have differential ambitions, and often, this tends to stagnate the decision-making process.
The way I see it, this is undoubtedly problematic at times, but what ensued once the bureaucratic bog had been cleared was the opposite. We saw the competence of this paternalistic state once its power became unmitigated. Aid was delivered en masse to Hubei Province. Hospitals mushroomed overnight. Public transport was frozen. An abundance of PPE appeared in hospitals, airports and quarantine hotels where officials donned hazmat suits, ready to take action. As soon as the extent of the novel coronavirus was understood, the Chinese response was swift and sweeping.
A similar response was unfortunately absent in the majority of western countries, who relied heavily on imports from China when the outbreak was first spreading across Europe. We took a long time to accept that the virus was something that would perturb our societies. Lockdown measures came several months after it was established that the virus was fatal. Mask-wearing became obligatory in public spaces too late. Even now, many wear them begrudgingly, and others still refuse to do so simply because they do not want to. PPE shortages were also common.
Whilst the disarray had barely begun in the UK, life in China was already beginning to resume. Thanks to the campaign-like, nationwide action, China overcame Covid-19 with less than 5,000 deaths. QR codes and slips to confirm people’s good health after an intense lockdown, where movement was reduced to an extreme minimum, allowed hospitality venues and shops in China to open last year. Not long after, clubs and bars opened, and all were packed with hoards of people sweating within a millimetre of each other.
I watched my friends in China with extreme envy at that time, wondering how long it would be until the UK returned to that standard of openness. Approaching the problem rationally, it’s clear that the UK simply did not, and will never have the level of infrastructure available in China.
There was no way that our response to Covid-19 could compare, nor could any European country’s. Where could we have erected hospitals overnight, sourced millions of masks and PPE in moments? Masks are available to buy in every Chinese shop and always have been. People wear them when pollution levels are high, and some wear them if they are unwell. Our culture had no impression of mask-wearing.
When Covid-19 was at its peak in China, the CCP sagely promoted the use of Traditional Chinese Medicine as a treatment. Although they accepted its uses were limited to supporting those with mild symptoms, Chinese people were happy to believe that their knowledge of medicine was sufficient to battle the virus. This is about creating a narrative. With so few deaths, it does beg the question, did eating the bitter TCM, also said to cure homosexuality play a role?
In the wake of this pandemic’s destructive force, there is little to be happy about. Joy has been unattainable for a majority of people, regardless of where they are. Yet, is there now, perhaps strength or even pride to be found in the UK? The UK also had a narrative, centred around clapping for the NHS on Thursdays, and a subsequent 1% pay increase. Bluntness aside, retrospectively, we owe it to ourselves to look back and think, wow, look at what we’ve been through. The efforts of Captain Tom Moore will not be forgotten by some for a long time, and Brits will feel a sense of national unity too.
But the Chinese constructed a much stronger, indelible narrative. China showed the world that its regime was adroit and unflagging. The images of nurses, doctors, and soldiers moving intra-provincially as embodiments of the party-state’s dedication to its people will no doubt linger for many years. Doctors and medics called upon from hinterland regions to fight the virus at its epicentre certainly buttresses the nationalist propaganda machine. The national thank you to the Eleme and Meituan waimai xiaoge, equivalent to our Deliveroo and Uber Eats drivers, whose importance was elevated higher than ever.
This swift and decisive action plays into the CCP’s hand and perhaps proves the superiority of its belief system over Western democracies. Looking at just these few things — the death toll, the vigorous lockdown, the promotion of Traditional Medicine, and the state’s use of the military to transfer supplies and open up transport for frontline workers — the CCP looks stalwart.
Andrew Nathan argued that after the Tiananmen Square crisis in June 1989, after which the country swiftly resumed negotiations with the US and the G-7 countries, the Communist Party’s resilience and strength could not be overlooked. Today, this reality remains unchanged. The CCP has only strengthened its legitimacy and reaffirmed its father-like role in the protection of its people.
With the virus largely quelled, and no political figures contracting it, the Chinese system seems to have emerged victorious and healthier than ever. That is a resilient party, and a strong system, whose political sovereignty will likely never be denied.