By now it is no secret that the Chinese government, especially in Hubei (Wuhan is the capital of the province Hubei) reacted poorly to the spread of the virus, even going so far as to silence voices talking about the Virus shortly before the epidemic. The now famous Ophthalmologist Li Wenliang springs to mind, who was forced to keep silent about a new virus that he had noticed at the time of the outbreak.
Li Wenliang died on the 7th of February from the disease that he was forbidden to talk about. The Chinese public had a rare moment of public outrage against the regime. People wrote on the internet against censoring and for free speech. People wrote against the ruling regime and against their slow response on the epidemic. It was a special moment, in a country in which normally the great firewall prohibits all, or at least most writing against the regime and against the actions which it takes.
But then the Virus spread and China declared a national war against it. Xi Jinping himself, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party declared that anyone who doesn’t fight with all of their power against the virus could suffer consequences in the long run. A very clear message on the further direction the government would take. A monthlong quarantine was invoked in the centers of the outbreak and even military was used to ensure that the people would follow through. Now 76 days later on Wednesday in Wuhan the lockdown is over and a transition into normal life has been started.
China surprisingly has had, at least in the start a similar reaction as the western democracies in Europe. Like in Italy and Spain it took a lot of damage and victims until the respective countries invoked strict quarantines for all people. At the time I was in Slovenia as a volunteer on a school-trip, strangely enough to the Mediterranean Coast, and I could see firsthand how rapidly the government went from barely acknowledging the crisis to shutting the entire country down. We started the last week before the lockdown in Slovenia joking about a national lockdown like in Italy, which was barely one kilometer away from our hotel. At Thursday then it became painfully clear how this would not remain a joke but would become the reality for the next two weeks. At least at the time the duration was set to two weeks, a duration that should have already seemed suspicious if one would have only looked to china as parallel world with a few weeks in front of oneself.
Right now I am in Germany, waiting for the restrictions to get lifted and to return to my volunteering position in Slovenia, although it remains uncertain if this will actually happen.
The biggest question however, that I have been asking myself, is how the public outrage in China has died down so rapidly and how the general public has again accepted the oppression through the regime. For this, a look to Europe and North-America can serve as an answer. A big question of the last years has been the question of the system. Free market capitalism in the West and state run capitalism in the East. Democracy in the West and authoritarianism in the East.
The Corona crisis reexamines these question again.
The public outrage against the regime in china was held roughly until the epidemic became a pandemic with Europe as it’s new epicentre. Not only had Europe a lot more time to react on the virus than China, we also pride ourself on our democracy in which the individual is in the centre and everyone shall be protected. But slow and indecisive action by our governments in contrary to seemingly the opposite in china have made quite the impression on the Chinese public. Money being relocated rapidly to build new facilities and to buy new equipment to fight the virus, a tempo of which Europe right now only can dream of. If even the richest continent in the world, with the self-proclaimed best political system can fail at handling such a crisis then the Chinese government and way of doing things can’t be that bad either. At least this is how the thinking goes.
China is rewriting the narrative. It is using the European handling of the situation and expanding its influence through shipments of breathing-masks and suits for hospitals to combat the pandemic. A couple of weeks ago i heard for the first time a conspiracy theory about the virus originating in America and not China on the Chinese messaging service WeChat. It was the first of many, now there are thousands of versions floating in the internet. All over the world there are such Conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, with the president of the U.S.A going as far as hinting to some of them in his daily press conferences. Another instance of the west failing to surpass the Chinese system, this time in the realm of information.
Chinese citizens now feel reassured after seeing the chaos in Europe. After seeing how the same conspiracy theories are floating in the internet of Europeans, after seeing how scary amounts of people get infected and die and after seeing the governments slow reactions to the situation. One comment someone communicating with Chinese friends and family might hear right now is that at least Xi Jinping wasn’t as stupid as Boris Johnson who got himself infected.
From my personal point of view there are many things great about Europe and European politics that are simply missing in China. But it is too easy to judge Chinese people about supporting the regime as long as we in Europe can’t be a better example ourself.
As China's Wuhan Ends Its Long Quarantine, Residents Feel A Mix Of Joy And Fear
Wikipedia: Li Wenliang
Podcast: Corona weltweit: Lehren aus China? / Zeit hinter der Geschichte
New York Times: A timeline of the coronavirus pandemic
My own experiences through WeChat with my family in China