This is my second Chinese epidemic. In 2003, I was living in Beijing when the SARS outbreak happened, and in 2020, I was in Heilongjiang province visiting family for the holidays when the coronavirus outbreak went national. As we watched the streets empty and facemasks become obligatory, the sense of SARS deja vu was very strong: here we go again.
As the days went on, and we struggled to make our way across the northeast back to Beijing and back to the US, it became clear that this in fact was not SARS all over again. The government’s response has been much more heavy-handed and extreme: it has locked down cities and closed businesses across the country to stop the spread of this virus (which, while less deadly than SARS, is much more infectious).
The proliferation of guards and barriers everywhere, the ostentatious temperature-checking in public places–all recall the “security theater” that enveloped the US in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (the term was apparently coined by security expert Bruce Schneier, and popularized by James Fallows). Who really knows if all these procedures help, but they make us feel safer, so we have to do them. The historian Maura Cunningham dubbed China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak “quarantine theater“.
But I feel there is more going on here than the usual human overreaction in the face of crisis. The commands cascading down the chain of the Chinese government, from Xi Jinping’s meetings of the Politburo Standing Committee down to the management of individual city districts and even individual residential compounds, are not simply technical public health measures. They are the product of a mindset that perceives the virus outbreak as a challenge to the power and authority of the Chinese party-state, to which the only appropriate response is to demonstrate that the Chinese party-state indeed has the power and authority to overcome it. As Xi Jinping himself declared, the outbreak is “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance.”
No global public health expert advised locking down the city of Wuhan, or forbidding people to leave their homes even in other cities with very few cases. Indeed some experts think the whole focus on drastic measures to stop the spread of infection is misguided. There is clearly an element of theater, of performance for the public, in China’s response, but the theme of this theater is not so much security or health as it is state power. By its overwhelming response and massive disruption of everyday life, the Chinese party-state is showing just how much power it has, and that this power is being used to stop a feared enemy.
The leaders of the Chinese party-state believes their distinctive version of socialism is superior, and that this superiority consists of an ability to exercise state power more forcefully and effectively than other governments. What then-Premier Wen Jiabao in 2010 called “the incomparable superiority of the socialist system” manifests itself in the Chinese government’s ability to “make decisions efficiently, organize effectively, and concentrate resources to accomplish large undertakings.” (I chose a quote from Wen rather than Xi Jinping to make the point that this kind of thinking is a characteristic of the Chinese leadership as a whole, rather than Xi personally.) Therefore the instinctive response to any challenge to China’s “capacity for governance” is precisely to demonstrate this forcefulness, this effectiveness, this capacity for doing big things.
In my experience at least, many Chinese people do find the theater of state power reassuring rather than threatening. The Western media, which is ideologically predisposed to look for discontent with authoritarian rule, has unsurprisingly emphasized the doubts and worries among the public about the handling of the outbreak. But much of this public discontent in fact reveals how effective the theater of state power actually is. Most of the complaints are about how the promise of all-encompassing and effective state power has failed to be achieved in every instance: the fact that the government has not, for instance, somehow been able to instantaneously supply everyone in the country with facemasks every day.
Fewer people question the premise that the handling of epidemic disease should be an occasion for the overwhelming display of state power. While worries over the economic impact of the unprecedented closures are certainly growing, the central leadership is already painting the most extreme measures as misguided efforts of local officials that will be corrected.
Ultimately, I suspect the coronavirus outbreak will be treated in official history as another victory for Chinese state power–just as the response to SARS was, or the relief effort for the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. Some epidemiologists argue that the outbreak is very likely to burn itself out eventually as rising outside temperatures and humidity decrease the viability of the virus (as happened with SARS, and as happens with the flu season every year). Whatever finally happens with the outbreak, the one thing that the propaganda narrative will not allow is a full debate over the costs and benefits of the government’s response. The only possible answer is that only state power could solve the problem, and it did.
The state capacity that is so dramatically on display in China right now is very much for real. One thing that the China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has conclusively demonstrated is that the Chinese state is in fact more powerful, more effective, and more organized than it was in 2003. Its response to this outbreak is more forceful than the response to SARS because, in part, it can be.
I feel like this increase in state power should be a bigger part of the standard narrative of how China has changed over the past two decades than it now is. (In this regard I must recommend Xu Jilin’s brilliant 2011 essay “The Specter of Leviathan: A Critique of Chinese Statism since 2000” as an indispensable piece of intellectual history; it is available to English readers thanks to David Ownby’s translation in Rethinking China’s Rise: A Liberal Critique). What it not yet so clear is whether the Chinese state is getting better at deploying that power in service of the public interest.