Inside China’s battle to suppress Covid

76 Days, a new documentary that details the harrowing frontline battle against the Coronavirus’s initial outbreak in Wuhan, is in very few ways an overtly political film. Stripped of any soundtrack or commentary, 76 Days is instead a study into the raw emotion and panic that defined an uncompromising lockdown of 11 million people, at the time a bold test of a city’s resilience in face of an invisible threat.

The Wuhan of January and February 2020, and that of the documentary, stands in striking contrast to the Wuhan of today. Images of streets chocked with people circulated below headlines last summer as the city eased into recovery and new cases of the virus flatlined, an antithesis of the anaemic streets of 76 Days. Earlier this year, The New York Times hailed Wuhan as the world’s “first post-pandemic city”.

The documentary, now poised to be an Academy Award nominee, may seem politically innocuous, yet given the subject matter it would be hard to deny the politics that allowed sweeping success in battling a virus that has crippled Western governments.

On paper, the Chinese government’s ability to suffocate the virus spreading among the world’s largest population has been an immutable success. At the time of writing, new community cases have been recorded in double digits since March 2020, and total number of cases stand at just less than 90,000. By contrast, the UK has careened into more than 100,000 Covid-related deaths, while former president Donald Trump’s recalcitrant attitude to following a science-based approach in managing the virus led to more than 100,000 new cases daily in the US at its peak.

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Beijing’s blitzkrieg approach to keeping cases low, locking down regions of millions when only a few dozen new infections spring up, has permitted a unique type of freedom for Chinese citizens – the rich feeling of normalcy that allows people to live a regular life, without fear of catching the virus. 

Solely in terms of virus management, China has become one of the safest places to live in the world; its triumphs manna for propagandists espousing the virtues of their system of governance. Yet, while superficially attractive, its response to the pandemic is ultimately problematic, arising from murky realpolitik that doesn’t necessarily follow Occam’s razor – the simplest explanation behind the Chinese government’s success is far from the best.

After an early hike in Coronavirus infections, widely believed to have been spread at a Wuhan seafood market, China’s governing party, the CCP, swiftly started clamping down on moderate dissent in an effort to control the narrative of the outbreak. Ophthalmologist Li Wenliang was among the first to draw attention to a rising cluster of infections linked to a then-unknown virus. Dr Li was on the receiving end of government criticism early in the pandemic, until his eventual death from the virus and status as an increasingly popular icon for Chinese citizens enraged at a swelling crisis, prompted a U-turn from authorities that now lionise him as a martyr.

Similarly, others have been jailed or shouted down for causing friction against the CCP’s ideal narrative. Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist who covered a very human side to the outbreak in Wuhan, became the first in China to be jailed for coverage related to the virus after being found guilty for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” in December. Documents leaked to The New York Times and ProPublica late last year revealed the lengths official censors went through to avoid fanning public outrage online towards any missteps in the government’s early handling of the virus – techniques such as instructing media outlets to downplay the crisis and mobilising trolls to sway public opinion.

The CCP is constantly engaged in a battle for legitimacy, and maintains tight control over portrayal of controversial events in recent history. It has no business dwelling over mistakes and points of contention that would otherwise undermine its commanding rule, and so these narrative-controlling techniques should come as no surprise to international onlookers. 

China’s response to the pandemic has been greeted with satisfaction inside of its borders – a YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project survey revealed last year that 88 per cent of Chinese citizens were satisfied with their government’s efforts in its global leadership in response to the pandemic. Outside of its borders, public views on China have soured – an average of 61 per cent of respondents in European and other Asian countries view the country’s response with disfavour, according to a survey by Pew Research Centre published in October.

Worryingly, worsening opinion on China has carried over to the international diplomatic community. Its government has been successful in allaying its citizens fears of widespread infections, but has been toying with diplomatic efforts to establish the origins of the virus. A team of World Health Organisation researchers arrived in Hubei province earlier this year to study the origin of the pathogen, but only after months of stonewalling increased demands to allow the group into the country. 

A recent investigation by the Associated Press also brought to light efforts to control domestic research into the virus’s origins, while pushing baseless theories that the pathogen leaked from an American lab, irking foreign governments and politicising a scientific effort to arrest the chances of a similar outbreak from occurring again. The international effort to research the virus’s roots is unlikely to be the source of a much-needed détente between China and its western counterparts.

No doubt as a result of its stringent lockdown, China’s economy has made a hasty and compelling return to growth. Its approach is being peddled by the CCP as a bulwark to economic catastrophe, as it becomes one of the world’s only major economies to escape a pandemic-induced recession – a position envied by Western governments and businesses. The country’s fractious diplomatic mode is nothing new, but a continued belligerent approach to international cooperation will only foster enduring attitudes of ‘containing’ China, one espoused by the Biden administration, that is of little benefit to either party.

Yet, it’s far from clear how far China’s management of the virus will alter its diplomatic relations or improve standing among citizens. If anything, the lockdown of 76 Days and subsequent recovery reveals the vast extent to which the Chinese government is prepared to wield power for its own security.

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