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Bill Emmott: After coronavirus mistakes, tough for China gov't to ease public anger

Bill Emmott (Mainichi/Naoki Watanabe)

By Bill Emmott

The worldwide spread of the new coronavirus, known as COVID-19, raises many questions, from medicine to economics to tourism to business supply chains. The answers will depend on how matters develop over the coming weeks and months. But one big and important question has already been answered by the way in which the coronavirus was managed, after it emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December and January. This question concerns the nature and quality of China's government.

This question matters for two related reasons. The first is that understanding China's government is important for understanding the country itself and how it works, socially, politically and economically. The second is that in recent years people in democracies all over the world have developed a kind of inferiority complex with regard to China and its system of government. Just as the Polish dissident and later president, Lech Walesa, once said, only half jokingly, that Japan was the only country to have made socialism work, many westerners have concluded that China is the only country to have made dictatorship not just work but also be sustainable over the long term.

Yet the coronavirus pandemic should teach us to hold this proposition in severe doubt. What it suggests is that in China the government is not, in fact, the strong, impressive, decisive, knowledgeable system that admirers like to think. Nor is it in fact the main source of China's prosperity. Actually, in many ways, government may well be one of China's weakest points. It may prove to be the country's greatest vulnerability.

Of course, it is obviously true that when government, either central or local, has the sort of powers, resources and legal immunity that China's has then it can make and implement decisions with great speed and efficiency. It can build high-speed train lines or other new infrastructure far more easily than is the case in other countries where citizens' property rights and opinions carry a greater weight. Yet while infrastructure is important it is not really the main story.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed some other aspects of the nature and conduct of government in China. One is its control over information: it determines who knows what and when. Increasingly, since President Xi Jinping rose to the top of the party in 2012, this control has become more centralized in Beijing.

Another feature, related to that centralization of control of information, is that key decisions are being made by a smaller group of people than was the case in the past. Importantly and inevitably, those decision-makers are distant from the communities their decisions concern. In a country the size of China, they cannot really have a good feel or sense of local needs, local issues and local circumstances.

This has also been evident in the case of Hong Kong and Chinese policy toward it. That so-called "special administrative region" has experienced growing interference by Beijing in its affairs in recent years, interference which has not indicated great knowledge or sensitivity toward Hong Kong's particular character and situation.

None of this should be surprising. It is what governments have been like ever since the beginning of history. What is surprising is that in certain cases the basic difficulties and weaknesses of government become forgotten or at least suppressed in people's minds. It is often a result of a confusion between correlation and causation. When long periods of economic success occur, it is natural to assume that the government associated with that success should be credited with it, and to assume that that government must therefore have special powers and capabilities that other governments lack.

The same thing happened in Japan, especially during the 1980s. The long run of economic success Japan had achieved, including a remarkably successful recovery from the triple shocks a decade earlier of the oil price rise, the yen's revaluation and America's rapprochement with Mao Xedong's China, gave the Japanese bureaucracy and even the Liberal Democratic Party an aura of invincibility. Foreigners, especially Americans, lauded them as better trained, more expert, more capable than any officials or politicians seen in the West in living memory.

It was a misunderstanding, a confusion of correlation with causation. That is also what has happened with contemporary China, particularly under supremely powerful President Xi. Yet we now know that warnings about the coronavirus were not heeded, that information was not shared, that action was not taken. The spread of this virus could clearly have been contained much more effectively if action had been taken sooner.

Governments of all kinds make mistakes, often with deadly consequences. Yet those mistakes also tend to bring consequences for those who made them. The first consequence is that this tragic episode should now cast President Xi and his government in a new, much more realistic and cynical light, both at home and abroad. The second, however, is that this episode may well mark the beginning of President Xi's decline.

A supreme, or "paramount" leader to use China's preferred phrase, cannot long survive deadly mistakes, for the backlash both from the public and from businesses will inevitably be severe. With the centralization of control comes the centralization of responsibility and blame.

We cannot know whether President Xi's decline will be fast or slow, or even whether it will be very clear when it has happened given the secrecy through which politics operates in China. But we can expect that these mistakes will weaken him and his entourage, and will accelerate a process by which the Communist Party will plan and manoeuvre for a change to a new leadership.

That process is a natural and desirable one, from the point of view of the Communist Party itself. Individual leaders and their loyalists are dispensable. It is the system that must be saved. If the leaders are not changed, then in fact the whole system could be put at risk. Its greatest weakness is its own fallibility. Its greatest enemy is public anger. In the face of the coronavirus mistakes, its greatest task now will be one of trying to sooth that anger.

(Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)

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