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Is the Coronavirus a Threat to China's Communist Party?

FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Is the Coronavirus a Threat to China’s Communist Party?

The coronavirus poses a threat to the institutional legitimacy of the Communist Party—but not a serious one. The CCP isn’t going anywhere soon.

Since the country’s founding, there hasn’t been any real challenge to the single-party rule of the Communists. In the last three decades of economic liberalization and expansion, China hasn’t seen any economic depressions or even severe recessions. Modern China has yet to face any actual institutional crises, the kind of event that could compromise the people’s faith in the Chinese Communist Party.

And absent any proof the people of China feel that their leaders have lost the Mandate of Heaven, the Party is going to continue assuming they have it and continue to rule—just as they have for the past seventy years.

This year, however, China’s rulers are facing quite a few: an epidemic that has challenged their ability to control information, an on-going and very public confrontation in Hong Kong, a depreciating world reputation due to media coverage of the coronavirus and Xinjiang, and a potential recession instigated by a US trade war.

Many are now asking if Beijing is facing the existential threat it has so far evaded. Western journalists and pundits are understandably pontificating about Chinese leader Xi Jinping “Losing the Mandate of Heaven.” Fifty million people under quarantine feels like the definition of public health failure. Logic follows that the Chinese public will be justifiably angry at the Party for screwing it up so badly and demonstrating their unworthiness to hold moral and historical authority.

This is unlikely in the extreme.

There is nothing to suggest any widespread discontent in China, nor is there any evidence that the Chinese people are demanding systemic change. And absent any proof the people of China feel that their leaders have lost the Mandate of Heaven, the Party is going to continue assuming they have it and continue to rule—just as they have for the past seventy years.

Chinese military.

Chinese military.

MANDATE OF HEAVEN

The Chinese government is fond of reminding the world how ancient their culture is. “Five thousand years of civilization” that the Chinese Communist Party, the governing body of the People’s Republic of China, frequently lays claim to in order to bolster their historical authority. The Chinese lean on the crutch of antiquity because they haven’t walked through much of history themselves yet. The nation of China is only seventy years old, and most of the country’s first thirty years were filled with poverty, atrocity, and mismanagement at epic scales. It is only in the last twenty-five years that modern China has risen, but memories are long there: the Chinese know the good times can end.

[N]ational pride is what will help the Chinese Communist Party weather the storm. That and the fact that the Chinese Communist Party can rightfully take credit for bringing prosperity to hundreds of millions of people and elevating China to the status of world power.

It is impossible to understate how vital recent modern history is to China, both to her people and her leaders. The “Century of Humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers is burned into the country’s identity and embodies the complete failure of one of China’s most important cultural values: social harmony. The Mandate of Heaven that all successful Chinese rulers have is contingent upon maintaining order, peace, and prosperity; leaders that allow social disruption and chaos are not worthy of leading—and will lose the ability to do so. During the Century of Humiliation (roughly 1839-1949), for nearly one hundred years, China did not rule itself. A tremendous amount of political and cultural identity is invested in making sure that is never repeated.

China’s last imperial dynasty fell in 1911 but the Republic of China which replaced it was swamped in popular unrest, poverty, foreign interference, and civil war, leaving the country open for invasion by the Japanese in 1937. As soon as the Japanese occupation ended, in 1945, the civil war resumed for four more bloody years. Shortly after the People’s Republic of China was established, Chairman Mao embarked on a series of disastrous campaigns that left tens of millions of Chinese dead and Chinese society in paranoid tatters. Following its catastrophic early years, the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) and Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) upended China, effectively destroying one of the world’s great spiritual and historical societies. The country’s financial and cultural wealth was destroyed, and educated Chinese were sent to the fields, turned in by their own children, or killed in the streets.

China confronted the failures of Mao’s leadership upon his death—mostly. (It is commonly said that Mao was thirty percent wrong, a way of maintaining his near-sacred status while acknowledging the disasters some of his policies resulted in). Almost immediately upon Mao’s passing, China took itself in a new direction. Liberalizing markets, allowing foreign investment, and creating the conditions that helped shape the soon-to-be-largest economy in the world.

Today, the Chinese Communist Party enjoys the highest public satisfaction of any government in the world. Chinese nationalism is a large and possibly growing attitude among the population. The Mandate of Heaven is zealously promoted and jealously guarded by state-nationalists and average Chinese patriots online. True, the dustup late last year about the NBA and Hong Kong may seem an overreaction typical of a one-party state prone to censorship, but nobody in Beijing had to order Chinese netizens to attack Daryl Morey for his offensive tweet. These vigilantes took up the cause of their nation’s pride in their own hands—they love their country and the Party.

This is in part because the Chinese Communist Party has spent decades deliberately conflating the Party with the country. Through direct propaganda, school curriculum, and appealing the people to always prioritize social harmony, the Party has successfully created a type of nationalism that few other modern nations emulate or share. The Party is the People; criticize one, and you criticize the other.

This national pride is what will help the Chinese Communist Party weather the storm. That and the fact that the Chinese Communist Party can rightfully take credit for bringing prosperity to hundreds of millions of people and elevating China to the status of world power.

Chinese law enforcement.

Chinese law enforcement.

DESPITE ALL APPEARANCES, A CRISIS ADEQUATELY MANAGED

Contrary to the usual western image of China as an uber-repressive society, where dissent isn’t allowed and protest swiftly quelled, Chinese cities are frequently filled with civil demonstrations. In 2010 alone, the last year for which we have something resembling data, there were over 180,000 individual incidents of civil disruption in China. Nearly every day in China, there is some sort of protest or demonstration somewhere in the country.

Chinese diplomats, state journalists, and Party officials are being uncharacteristically eager to confront foreign accusations that China is to blame for the global pandemic.

In a country the same size as the US, with five times the population, where many tens of millions are still living on under $2.00 a day, it is a functional guarantee that a substantial percentage of Chinese are unhappy on any given day. Just this past November, the planned construction of a crematorium on land designated for a public park drove hundreds of protesters to the streets of Wenlou, resulting in riot police firing tear gas and arresting at least fifty people. And yet, polls still show over 80% public satisfaction with their government.

Still, the COVID-19 outbreak could have had dire political implications for China’s senior leadership, including Xi Jinping. Chinese social media has been awash with grumbling citizens expressing their anger with the lockdowns and quarantines online.

They’re feeling the pressure, to be sure. Chinese diplomats, state journalists, and Party officials are being uncharacteristically eager to confront foreign accusations that China is to blame for the global pandemic. Invectives, insults, and explicit threats have become par for the course—even on Western social media.

China's Consul General in Kolkata, India, responding in decidedly undiplomatic fashion to a Chinese anti-Communist on Twitter.

China’s Consul General in Kolkata, India, responding in decidedly undiplomatic fashion to a Chinese anti-Communist on Twitter.

What else could the Party have done to stem the virus? They are having to strike an extremely delicate balance.

On the one hand, they are contending with the medical and social realities of a vast, largely impoverished nation. The Party has been trying for a long time, at least a decade, to promote good hygiene practices, but as of now, there is still much to be done on both the individual and community levels—especially in rural China. For instance, hand-washing before eating or cooking, or after using the toilet, even in China’s biggest cities, still isn’t at 70%. In rural areas, that number is far lower. In Shanghai, a city of 24 million people, there are only 1000 public toilets. Wet markets, outdoor markets of fresh game—often exotic animals, frequently endangered, and badly cleaned/prepared/handled/kept—with horrible sanitation practices and very poorly regulated, are breeding grounds for dangerous viruses and bacteria. One of the most significant precipitating events of the epidemic was a communal potluck meal last month of some 40,000 people in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. At least thirty percent of the food was prepared by people who didn’t even wash their hands.

On the other hand, the Party had to accommodate travel during the largest public holiday on the planet, which likely exacerbated the crisis. Chinese New Year sees the largest annual mass-migration of humans in history. For Xi Jinping to even suggest canceling the event would have been political suicide: there would be no clearer indication that he had lost the Mandate of Heaven.

Pointing out that places like Italy are shutting down their own culturally important events in reaction to growing coronavirus cases is superfluous. For many hundreds of millions of Chinese, the New Year celebrations are the only time that they have to travel the hundreds or thousands of miles back home to see the family they leave for 11 months a year to make a living in one of China’s big cities. The almost 300 million rural migrants, that are the backbone of China’s economy can leave their families for years at a time and tolerate mistreatment. But preventing them from traveling during New Year would have been impossible, however essential to stemming the outbreak.

China’s actions during the past month have curried praise by the World Health Organization, however, whose chief said that China is setting new standards for disease response and containment. China is easing travel restrictions within the country, and around 180 million Chinese have already left their hometowns to return to work in the big cities—cities that were aggressively disinfected. Local officials and national Party members have been resigning or been removed in droves.

The Party has been working hard.

China’s Communist Party is facing a tough year in 2020. Yes, there are many Chinese netizens expressing their anger with the lockdowns and quarantines online. And, yes, the world is rightfully suspicious of China’s reactions to the crisis and what information they’ve shared with the world (in no small part because leadership of the WHO is likely corrupted by the CCP).

But whatever the consequences of the coronavirus outbreak, the dismantling of the Chinese Communist Party will most not likely not be one of them. In fact, it’s unlikely that there will be any significant reforms of the Party at all.

Written By

Thomas Brown is a history teacher and freelance writer. He writes for The Swamp and his work on China has been featured in Quillette, Spiked, The Bipartisan Press, Human Events, and others. Block him on Twitter.

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