Covid-19 and China’s Obsession With Public Image

China’s handling of the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic encapsulates both their government’s greatest strength and weakness. On the one hand, we have witnessed a governmental apparatus which can plan, coordinate, and execute effectively, and on the other hand, we have seen another classic display of Beijing’s almost crippling insecurity about its personal image.

The primary upside of an authoritarian government is the ability to have a central command, a brain, which can send signals to the tentacles to act in concert with one another. It’s not all as seamless as it appears, but the leviathan can move quickly in one direction if it wishes to — you can pull a lever in China, and something happens.

Unlike in a democracy where the continual change of leadership hinders any long term planning and implementation efforts, an authoritarian government can develop policies, plans, and decisions within an ideologically unified group by relying on continuity of leadership, years of political experience, the advice of experts, and copious amounts of data.

For example, an authoritarian government can build a hospital from scratch in 10 days in the event that a plague breaks out in one of their cities. In the US, the same hospital would either not get built because it would not be profitable to do so, or the proposed bill itself would become lost in a quagmire of red tape and partisan wrangling.

However, the Chinese Communist Party sabotages their own strengths through their obsession with their image. This obsession with image translates into a need to suppress information which might make them look bad or oppressive. Ironically, the CCP’s overzealous efforts to suppress the flow of information prevent them from cashing in on the greatest strengths of their organizational structure. If the strength of an authoritarian is their ability to act, then they are only as good as the information they receive to act on. So, suppressing the flow of information will usually work at cross purposes to your actual interests in the long run.

The covid-19 situation which developed in Wuhan illustrates the contradictory incentives of the political situation in China. The doctors who first noticed the situation developing alerted other doctors in the area via WeChat, but those doctors were contacted by the government to remain silent about the situation. They were accused of spreading rumors and causing fear, even carrying out illegal activities. One of these doctors, Li Wenliang, passed away from covid-19, eliciting an outcry from his fellow Chinese citizens. His death came to symbolize the struggle of the Chinese people to speak freely under the regime.

Not only does such censorship stoke justifiable anger amongst their people, the Chinese Communist Party is also not acting in their own best interest by suppressing this information. Information is the life blood of a system, and suppressing its flow, especially in the age of the internet, only sets one up for failure and embarrassment. It shocks me that the CCP hasn’t learned this yet. They damage their reputation more by refusing to admit what their people believe to obviously be true. They’d be far better off owning their actions and doubling down on justifying them.

But this obsession with image explains why information about the outbreak would have been suppressed at the local level. Local officials in Wuhan have an incentive to appear to Beijing like they’re doing fine, they can handle it, and that everything is under control. But it was maintaining that ruse which ultimately allowed the situation to get out of hand. Xi Jinping sacked the leader of Hubei province (where Wuhan is located). I’m not qualified to judge whether this was due to the province leader’s incompetence or Xi was just staging some political theater, but regardless, it’s obvious that local officials bungled things by not running it up the flag pool a lot faster and a lot sooner. This signals to me that local officials are experiencing the conflicting incentives of needing to effectively gather and process the most up to date and accurate information for the regime to act on, while also needing to sufficiently control and filter that information to project the right image back to Beijing. Inevitably, in that delay between gathering and transmitting the information, a mistake about the priority of certain information will be made.

Think about how much better the situation could have been handled if the information had actually been conveyed back to Beijing sooner so that the country could quickly and decisively mobilize its resources? Admittedly, this speculation rests on the questionable assumption that Beijing didn’t already know about the virus, perhaps even as soon as early December. Since we don’t fully understand how the virus developed or how long it has existed, the timeline remains ambiguous for now. However, it seems clear to me that the information about the virus was intentionally suppressed because of a fixation on image. Either Beijing suppressed the information because they didn’t want the world to see them as a source of a pandemic (they thought they could handle it quietly and the rest of the world would be none the wiser), or local officials covered up information because they thought they could handle it without word of a crisis needing to be sent to Beijing. Regardless of whether one or both are true, the obsession with image is the primary blocker to effective action. Instead of dealing with the problem effectively and treating it according to its magnitude, the Chinese government endangered the world by attempting a cover up. Ultimately, cultivating a culture of honesty would benefit the regime in the long run because it would not dis-incentivize bad information from getting surfaced. They would just get accurate information instead.

I think China can be better than this.

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