Ian Johnson

Beijing-based Journalist Ian Johnson describes the governmental corona-action in Beijing and explains why it has more to do with lack of trust in the government than health, in the New York Times. “Considering the underlying distrust, it’s hard for the government to say what many epidemiologists are saying: This outbreak is serious but not catastrophic.”

Ian Johnson:

Hence one of the most popular figures in the crisis: Zhong Nanshan, the hero of the 2002-03 SARS outbreak, now 83, who is back in action, treating patients and warning citizens about the need for hygiene. He has been adopted as the incorruptible official — a familiar trope in Chinese history, the Confucian official who stands tall despite pressures to bend. And so we read endless profiles of Dr. Zhong in Chinese social media, discussing his family background, upbringing, successes and apolitical pursuit of science-based truth. The clear implication is that he is that rare official capable of such principled conduct.

Behind all this lies the feeling that most other people in the party can’t quite be trusted. This has been reinforced over the past few days by reports that at least eight people who were detained in Wuhan in early January on charges of spreading rumors are in fact medical doctors, not fear-mongering ne’er-do-wells. This startling fact is now leaking out in online reports that are sometimes, but not always, being blocked. At some point, the government will have to admit to a partial cover-up.

Considering the underlying distrust, it’s hard for the government to say what many epidemiologists are saying: This outbreak is serious but not catastrophic. Because if the state leveled with the people, it would also have to admit that there is no need for this degree of social control. Fewer than 200 people were reported to have died as of Thursday evening, in a country of nearly 1.4 billion, and there is no indication that we are at the start of a Hollywood disaster-style movie.

The government’s inability to formulate a measured response will turn this outbreak into a direct successor of the SARS epidemic. That hardly was a huge public health disaster — fewer than 800 deaths — yet it has taken on a legendary reputation as a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, one that should never be allowed to recur.

But of course a new outbreak has occurred.

Does this mean that the state will suffer? I don’t think so. For despite their mistrust of the system, people overall are going along with the lockdown. In private conversations and on chat rooms, they say it’s impossible not to take drastic action in a country as big as China.

In this sense, the population has absorbed the government’s narrative of Chinese exceptionalism: Running China requires a strong hand, and these measures, as absurd as they seem, are proof that the government is doing a good job — and portend that the party will come out of this, as always, triumphant.

More in the New York Times.

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