The coronavirus is more than a health problem and an economic challenge for China. Communist China's political system is straining under the scrutinous criticisms the virus's outbreak has provoked among the public.
The torrent of online criticism from China's own people threatens the legitimacy of the communist regime. Whereas the economic costs will be largely recouped and readily managed in time, the political damage is set to leave an immovable stain.
The legitimacy of China's ruling party depends upon its ability to protect its citizens: if an authoritarian government cannot maintain the security of its people, its days are numbered. In an authoritarian system, total power means total responsibility. For several weeks, the authorities denied that a new virus, now known as COVID-19, was developing - and doctors who gave out warnings were arrested for spreading rumours. The death of 34-year-old doctor Li Wenliang in Wuhan on February 7 has incited an outpouring of anger in the Chinese blogosphere. For his early warning about the virus that would go on to kill him, Dr Li was arrested by police and forced to confess to "rumour-mongering", presumably under orders from Communist Party officials.
Reportedly, close to a billion views of hashtags that included the phrase "Li Wenliang has passed away" were logged on Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like platform, before authorities removed them. Harder to eradicate entirely are the millions of varying but related demands that have poured forth since Li's death, centred upon a common theme: freedom of speech.
Online anger from Chinese netizens has focused on how freedom of speech could have saved lives - and on Beijing's inaction in the early days and weeks of the virus. The outside world has marvelled at how efficiently this authoritarian regime has got things done - from completely shutting down Wuhan, a city of 10 million people, to throwing up brand new hospitals. But amongst the Chinese populace, netizens question the benefits of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule when it fails to secure safety and stability.
Although the death toll has risen above that of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus of 2003, the mortality rate of the coronavirus has been reported as significantly lower. However, people within China have questioned the figures, and with it the reliability and integrity of their own government officials. Such scepticism has been validated by the recent redefining of how a case is judged to be that of COVID-19, with the result that the numbers of cases and deaths have leapt upward. Furthermore, citizen journalists have reported that a number of sick individuals - quite possibly infected with the coronavirus - have been turned away at first sight by officials at the entrances to Wuhan hospitals. Whether or not this phenomenon is widespread, or even true, may prove a moot point: that such reports are being publicly shared - and the Communist Party deplored - is a story in itself.
Even China's army of internet censors - the largest censorship machine the world has ever seen - cannot keep up with the growing online dissent of today.
For nearly three weeks in January, communist officials denied there was any outbreak of what we now know as the coronavirus. However, their cover-up of the 2003 SARS epidemic lasted several months. Some in the outside world view this shortening timeline as progress, whereas many within China see a pattern of failure by their country's political system.
What is not lost on Beijing is that it was from comparable circumstances that communist China's greatest existential threat since Mao erupted. In April 1989, Hu Yaobang - a popular, reforming Communist leader - died. The party leadership's derisory treatment of his widow and his legacy provoked subsequent protests that culminated in Tiananmen Square on June 4 and 5, 1989. This time around, the communist authorities are desperate not to make similar mistakes concerning the death of Dr Li - a man lauded by a consensus of millions of Chinese netizens as a martyred hero inexcusably persecuted by pernicious officials. Beijing very publicly made a swift decision to send an anti-corruption team to Wuhan to examine "issues of public concern relating to Li Wenliang". The party's national leadership has also sacked regional communist leaders in Wuhan's province, Hubei. This is Beijing ducking responsibility and directing the public regarding who to blame.
The challenge that the Chinese Communist Party faced in 1989 existed in the pre-internet age. Even China's army of internet censors - the largest censorship machine the world has ever seen - cannot keep up with the growing online dissent of today. The communist leadership should know that they must earn back political legitimacy not only by taking decisive action against the systemic problems and the individuals that caused China's initial response to the coronavirus to misfire so reprehensively, but also by granting greater freedom of speech. Without reform, dissent will ferment. The Chinese public have witnessed their self-appointed governing authorities fail in both 2003 and 2020 - two occurrences that history may mark as stepping stones towards a revolt against communist rule.
- Paul Letters is a journalist and novelist who lived in Hong Kong for 18 years and was a presenter for state broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong. His latest novel, set in wartime Hong Kong and China, is called The Slightest Chance. paulletters.com