NEWS
08/06/2020 7:37 AM IST | Updated 08/06/2020 1:15 PM IST

How The West Helped China Avoid Domestic Backlash For Its COVID Response: Journalist Pallavi Aiyar Explains

Aiyar on Xi Jinping’s position in the country, the lessons learnt by Beijing from the 2003 SARS crisis and how to view the India-China standoff.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping during the second plenary session of China's National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, May 25, 2020. 

The Xi Jinping-led China government may have faced much more internal anger over its mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic if Western countries had not handled their own outbreaks in an abysmal manner, journalist and author Pallavi Aiyar told HuffPost India in an interview.

“A lack of empathy for China, coupled by a generally accusative and combative approach to it by the United States, has helped strengthen Xi’s hand domestically and quell public resentment against Beijing, by redirecting it outwards,” she said.

Reports (see here and here) have suggested that the current stand-off between India and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is a tactic by Beijing to distract attention from its questionable actions before the infection spread to other countries. While the neighbours have said little in public about the tension, ruling party members including Union minister and former Indian Army chief VK Singh have backed this view

China’s initial response to Covid-19 not only earned it backlash from other countries but also from many people within. Chinese authorities, according toThe New York Times, clamped down on grieving relatives who demanded an accounting from the ruling party on what went wrong in Wuhan. 

“If China can spin the clashes (along the border) as a win for its domestic constituency, it will indeed bolster public support during an otherwise difficult time. India’s border dispute with Nepal has given China an easy entry point. And while it might be a bad time for China to be embroiled in a game of chicken along the border, it is arguably an even worse time for India,” said Aiyar, who currently lives in Japan.

With India and Western nations floundering to contain Covid-19 cases, the writer also detailed in an email interview what the Narendra Modi government could have learnt from the East Asian nations which have better handled the crisis.   

1. In an article forMathrubhumi, you noted that East Asian countries were able to respond to the coronavirus pandemic much more effectively than Europe or the US despite their increased vulnerability due to proximity with China. In India, we have seen a harsh lockdown massively disrupt the lives of millions of working poor, leading to an exodus to villages. Are there any lessons India can learn from the way South Korea, Taiwan and others dealt with the pandemic?

Neither Taiwan nor South Korea, nor even Japan, implemented the kind of rigorous lockdown that India instituted. The idea was to stem the tide of infections without killing the economy, and in this these countries have been successful. East Asian nations are not strangers to public health crises, having for example, weathered the 2003 SARS outbreak. Consequently, they lacked the sense of invulnerability that resulted in the hubris of many Western nations and caught them woefully unprepared to deal with the pandemic.

In East Asia we saw an awareness of the importance of speed and decisiveness in acting as soon as the novel coronavirus surfaced. Within a week of its first confirmed infections, the South Korean government, for instance, had given five domestic firms the go-ahead to start production of emergency Covid-19 test kits. Early contact tracing helped a lot. East Asian countries deployed technology and digital tools rapidly and effectively. For example: Taiwan merged the recent international travel history of citizens with their digital health-insurance files and let doctors and pharmacists gain access to the information. The use of new technologies to coordinate test results, undertake contact tracing, and to implement digital quarantines has been crucial.

In India, given the poverty levels and the percentage of the population that is dependent on daily wages, the economic consequences of a lockdown are more deadly than in the West. Certainly New Delhi could have undertaken a different approach than it did, looking East for inspiration.

India should have also taken a leaf out of the East Asian playbook when it came to clear communication with the public. Emergency measures in these countries were usually conveyed to citizens unambiguously, and they were given ample time to prepare for the consequences of restrictions.

2. You were in Beijing during the 2003 SARS epidemic, which you have detailed in a chapter titled ‘Coronavirus’ in your 2008 book Smoke and Mirrors. There are a lot of parallels to the current situation, including that the government initially tried to downplay the seriousness of the epidemic. Do you think that experience helped the Chinese understand the danger of SARS-CoV-2 a little earlier, even while the Xi Jinping administration was controlling information?

There are obvious parallels between the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic and the 2019-2020 Covid-19 one. Both began in the winter in China and involved cover ups by local authorities. The origins of both were traced to China’s unregulated wet markets and the sale of wildlife. And both served to highlight the pros and cons of China’s authoritarian political system: the ability to implement drastic measures to contain a crisis, but only after a culture of censorship had led to an unnecessary escalation.

Certainly, Beijing appears to have learned some lessons from 2003. With SARS, the cover up went on for far longer – for several months — than with Covid-19.

China had alerted the WHO within a month of the first cases of the novel coronavirus’ appearance in Wuhan. By the second week of January the virus had been genetically sequenced and the data shared with the WHO. By late January Wuhan was in strict lockdown. The response was far speedier with Covid-19 than with SARS and the action taken was more decisive, despite the economic costs.

The big difference is that Covid-19 is much more infectious than SARS and its massive spread outside of China’s borders has highlighted the inefficiencies and hubris of the West, in a manner that fits well with China’s domestic, nationalistic narrative.

India should have also taken a leaf out of the East Asian playbook when it came to clear communication with the public

3. At the time, your students initially refused to believe the Western media outlets which were reporting on SARS much before the local press. Do you think that distrust changed this time around?

Younger generations of Chinese are more nationalistic and even more inclined to believe the government/authorities than they were, two decades ago, when I was based in China. Under Xi Jinping the state has tightened its grip over the media, and the Internet is much less free than it was, making alternative sources of information far harder to come by. And given the huge rise in China’s global clout the younger generation finds it less necessary to seek out alternative narratives that might challenge their world-view.

4. You noted in the book that even though then President Hu Jintao had only been in the role for a month before he had to deal with the SARS crisis, he was able to absolve himself from criticism by moving quickly against “those lower down the pecking order”. Xi Jinping has been the country’s President for seven years now, and looks set to continue for as long as he chooses. Does his government look like it will face any consequences in terms of public anger this time?

There was a period of time in the early days of the unfolding of the epidemic in China where it seemed that public anger against the authorities might explode. Certainly when the whistleblower doctor, Li Wenliang, died of Covid-19, the intense public mourning that resulted was a red flag. What put an end to this trajectory was the spread of the virus to, and its abysmal handling by, the West. A lack of empathy for China, coupled by a generally accusative and combative approach to it by the United States, has helped strengthen Xi’s hand domestically and quell public resentment against Beijing, by redirecting it outwards.

Of course the economic impact of Covid-19 on China will be considerable and there is always the possibility that this will have a knock-on effect of heightening resentments against the government. However, China in 2003 and China today are in a very different position economically. The China of today is able to withstand an economic shock better. 

5. Is an increasing discontentment among Chinese people one reason why CPC has become more aggressive with territorial claims? With reports suggesting that China’s economic recovery is also stalling, is Xi Jinping trying to divert attention?

Divining the reasoning in Beijing is often akin to reading the tea leaves and analysts have an even chance of getting it wrong. That said, it is possible to see the escalation along the India-China border as one more problem for Beijing to solve when it is already grappling with myriad challenges from a fractious relationship with the United States, a damaged international reputation and a drastically slowing economy. In this reading, China is on the back foot.

But causing trouble along the border can also be seen from another perspective. If China can spin the clashes as a win for its domestic constituency, it will indeed bolster public support during an otherwise difficult time. India’s border dispute with Nepal has given China an easy entry point. And while it might be a bad time for China to be embroiled in a game of chicken along the border, it is arguably an even worse time for India: given the ongoing pandemic and looming economic disaster.