February 24, 2020 | By Xuefei Ren

‘The People’s War’ on Coronavirus in China

The outbreak of coronavirus that hit China on a massive scale in January 2020 thus far has killed more than 2,000 people and infected 73,000 worldwide. The epicenter of the outbreak is Wuhan, a megacity in the middle of the country that is home to 11 million people. Also called the “Chicago” of China, Wuhan is a major transportation hub in which planes and high-speed trains connect the city to hundreds of other destinations across the globe. Its central location, combined with the timing of the Chinese New Year—when the whole country is on the move—led to the fast spread of the virus. The crisis has demonstrated the close relationship between urbanization, migration, and infectious disease, and the critical role of cities in global health governance.

Perhaps no government can be prepared for a major epidemic on this scale, but the Chinese government’s delayed response made the matter much worse. The government silenced early whistleblowers—medical doctors who shared information on the virus via social media. These doctors were called in by the local police and forced to sign admissions that they had spread rumors and false information. By concealing information about the virus from the public, the Chinese government missed the window of time needed to contain the epidemic. 

The central government finally acknowledged the epidemic on January 20. By that time, 5 million people already had left Wuhan city to get a head start on the Chinese New Year holiday. On January 23, the central government locked down the city: It closed the airport, highways, and train stations. Many other Chinese cities quickly followed Wuhan’s example. Local authorities began to seal off urban neighborhoods, closing off the entrances that lead to each residential compound. Because most Chinese neighborhoods are gated from all sides, their spatial layout makes such “closed management” easy to enforce—simply by locking the gates. 


Residents are allowed to go out of their residential compound to get groceries every other day in Harbin. Photo: Lin Ai.

In Harbin, a city 1,500 miles away from Wuhan, the local government issued an emergency order to seal off all residential neighborhoods, even though the city has relatively few coronavirus cases. Only one member from each family is allowed to go out of their residential compound (xiaoqu) to get food, and only every other day. Upon entering and exiting the gates, residents must show a temporary pass issued by the neighborhood committee. Each household is given only three such passes per week, and if they use up the passes, they are unable to go out of their residential compound at all. Such extreme measures of restricting people’s movement have become the new normal in China.


A temporary pass is issued to residents for entering and exiting their neighborhoods, Harbin. Photo: Lin Ai

China’s draconian quarantine measures are unthinkable in democratic societies, but the country has a long history of restricting people’s movement. The best-known example is by hukou—the national registration system, which—during the nearly three decades under socialism (1950s-1970s)—confined people in places where they were registered and prohibited population movement between cities and towns. More recently, during the SARS epidemic in 2003 and the H1N1 flu season in 2009, the Chinese government issued similar orders of neighborhood-level quarantine that barred residents from leaving their housing compounds.

The lockdown of entire cities and neighborhoods highlights the Chinese style of governance and its limitations. Local Chinese officials, who wield enormous power within their jurisdictions, can shut down their city overnight. Worried about blowback for responding too slowly, city officials across the country compete with one another to copy Wuhan’s practice of lockdown, even though such a step may not be medically warranted. The lockdown effort also showcases the performative aspect of urban governance. Its instantly visible effects—emptied streets and deserted spaces—reflect the signal sent by the country’s leaders’ use of the toughest possible measures to contain the epidemic. Indeed, in early February, Chinese president Xi Jinping denounced the coronavirus as a “demon” and called for a “people’s war” to fight the virus, at any cost.

China’s harsh quarantines have shocked the world. Public health experts question the effectiveness of such methods, arguing that they have heightened anxieties, squandered popular trust in government, exacerbated a humanitarian crisis, and created a logistic nightmare. There is some truth in these assessments. In Wuhan and other cities that have been sealed off, food prices have spiked, and hospitals have experienced severe shortages of essential medical supplies such as protective gear and facemasks for doctors, which in turn have led to a high infection rate among frontline medical workers—to date more than 1,700 medical personnel have contracted the virus and 8 have died. The death toll of patients suffering from other conditions has risen sharply too; they have received relatively less attention as hospitals concentrate almost all of their resources on fighting “the people’s war” on coronavirus. 


A supermarket employee wears a disposable raincoat and a pair of goggles at the checkout counter, Harbin. Photo: Yingying Jiang

Perhaps surprisingly, the lockdown measures enjoy tremendous popular support inside China. The vast majority, including the educated urban middle class, believe that the inconvenience of the lockdown is a small price to pay to overcome the epidemic. As one colleague, a Chinese urban planning professor, said, “while we should sympathize those negatively affected by lockdown, no one can bear the unimaginable costs of no action, which can lead to hundreds of thousands of more deaths.” 

The coronavirus epidemic presents a major test for the ruling Chinese Communist Party at both local and national levels. But China’s massive quarantine effort, ironically, has the potential to shore up admiration for the strong man at the center. A professor of China studies noted that “people outside of China do not appreciate how strong is the support for the government. The government’s massive (if delayed) response will further strengthen respect and support for surveillance and control.” The government is already rolling out subsidies for small businesses, such as lowering interest rates, waiving taxes, and reducing rents for those renting from state-owned properties. 

It is too early to conclude that the epidemic will shake the Communist Party’s grip. Once the “people’s war” has defeated the epidemic, the authoritarian regime may turn out to have become even more powerful. But this crisis has made a few things clear. It illustrates how cities are increasingly important actors in addressing pressing global challenges. It also exemplifies how central-local government relations can shape a country’s response to major epidemic outbreaks. China’s local officials have enormous power in the cities they govern, but they are appointed from above and are too afraid to take actions when major crises hit—in Wuhan’s case, the mayor had to wait the central government’s approval before telling the public about the virus. One lesson learned is that China’s city officials should be accountable, not only to their superiors at the provincial and central government, but also to their own citizens. 

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

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