In China, COVID-19 Corona virus

Medical workers from Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University pose for a group photo in “Wuhan Livingroom” makeshift hospital in Wuhan, Central China’s Hubei province, March 7, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

In this report, independent researcher and Friends of Socialist China advisory group member Stefania Fusero briefly examines China’s administrative tools, i.e., the role of the government and the CPC. She uses pandemic management as a case study to analyze the relationship between government and citizens in China compared to US-led Western countries and believes it can provide challenging food for thought, involving the level of accountability of policy makers in their respective countries.

By Stefania Fusero

Published on NCW, Mar 28, 2022
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As enshrined in article 85 of the Constitution, The State Council of the People’s Republic of China, namely the Central People’s Government, is the executive organ of the highest state organ of power; it is the highest state administrative organ”. 

The Council of State, chaired by the premier, who is currently Li Keqiang, is formed, in addition to the various ministries (; bù), by some commissions, (; wěiyuánhuì, including Reforms and Development, Ethnic Affairs, Health), the People’s Bank of China (the central bank) and the National Audit Office.

“Liberal democracies” are based on the separation between the legislative, executive and judicial branches, and are supposedly set up with checks and balances, but this principle does not apply in the People’s Republic of China, where, if a tripartite system separates supervisory, administrative and judicial powers, they all fall under the aegis of the NPC (National People’s Congress), which itself is under the leadership of the Party Central Committee.

The National People’s Congress oversees the operations of the government, Supreme Court and Procuratorate, special committees, and elects the highest officials of the State.

All institutions, including the government, the courts and the defence, include structures that link them organically to the Communist Party. In the words of President Xi, “Government, the military society and schools, north, south, east and west – the party leads them all.”
To date, Xi Jinping is simultaneously Secretary General of the CPC Central Committee, Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the CPC, President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the PRC. Successes and failures of the Chinese government are therefore successes and failures of the CPC, too.

On July 1, 2021, China solemnly celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party. As an Italian, I can’t help but notice that the Italian Communist Party, which used to be the largest Communist party in the West but has been long dead and gone, was also born in 1921.

After fighting and prevailing against the Japanese occupation, the CPC also won the civil war against Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang and founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Since then, and through major changes and reforms, it has led the journey of the PRC, now the second largest economy in the world.

If it is difficult for us Westerners to understand the nature and functioning of the Chinese administrative machine, it is even more problematic to come to terms with the CPC, whose leadership is enshrined in the first article of the Constitution.

Article 1: The People’s Republic of China is a socialist State governed by a people’s democratic dictatorship that is led by the working class and based on an alliance of workers and peasants. The socialist system is the fundamental system of the People’s Republic of China. Leadership by the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics. It is prohibited for any organization or individual to damage the socialist system.
It almost comes as a paradox that a party conditioning each political decision of the State has managed tomaintain its capacity for innovation and leadership for over seventy years, but that is undeniably the case for the CPC.

Martin Jacques, author of “When China Rules the World,” believes the CPC is a unique reality: “The CPC reinvented and reconstituted the state after the 1949 revolution. Party and State are intimately linked. There is a certain line of continuity that we could observe in this context with the imperial State. Today both the party and the State are rooted in the meritocratic principles that were so central to Chinese civilization.

At the heart of the State is the CPC, the brain and the leader of both the State and society. The CPC’s success is due to its ability to express, reflect and articulate Chinese civilization. This was not achieved overnight, it was the result of a long journey that acquired a new maturity in the period of reforms, a moment of reconciliation and balance between present and past.
China is both a State of civilization and a nation State; the two modes coexist: the balance between them always shifts in a dynamic and sometimes even conflictual relationship, but the primary reality is the roots of Chinese civilization, and this is the key to successful governance. It is difficult to think of any other political party in the world that expresses and embodies a civilization in this way. “

According to Eric Li, a Chinese capitalist and political scientist, even though political scientists believe that one-party systems are incapable of self-correction, the CPC has self-corrected dramatically in the last 64 years, more than any other country in recent memory. The Party’s policies encompassed land collectivization, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms, and Jiang Zemin’s opening Party membership to private businesspeople — “something unimaginable during Mao’s rule.”

We also often hear that China is in dire need of political reform, but Li argues that this is rhetoric: political reforms have never stopped and Chinese society is unrecognizable today as compared to 30 years ago. In fact, Li says, “I would venture to suggest that the Party is the world’s leading expert in political reform.”

Another assumption is that one-party rule necessarily leads to a closed political system in which power gets concentrated in the hands of the few, leading as a consequence to bad governance and corruption.

Li argues that actually the Party is one of the most meritocratic political institutions in the world. This is thanks to a body little known to Westerners, the Party’s Organization Department system, which guides candidates through integrated career paths for Chinese officials, recruiting college graduates into entry-level positions and promoting them through the ranks, including high officialdom — a process requiring up to three decades.

While patronage plays a role, merit is the underlying driver, says Li . “Within this system,” Li says, “and this is not a put-down, but merely a statement of fact: George W. Bush and Barack Obama, before running for president, would not have made small-county chief in China’s system.”

Suffice to open the impressive resumes of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. Meritocracy, among other things, is deeply rooted in Chinese civilization: the use of the imperial examination system to select officials was already documented by the times of the Sui dynasty (581-618 CE).

The Government and the Party to the test of the pandemic

Facts first

Let’s briefly summarize what happened in China during the first phase of the pandemic by looking at a report that appeared on October 8, 2020, in the British medical journal The Lancet:

“The first reported cases of the disease that came to be known as COVID-19 occurred in Wuhan, Hubei province, in late December 2019. China released the genomic sequence of the virus on January 10, 2020 and began enacting a raft of rigorous countermeasures later in the same month. Wuhan was placed under a strict lockdown that lasted 76 days.

Public transport was suspended. Soon afterwards, similar measures were implemented in every city in Hubei province. Across the country, 14,000 health checkpoints were established at public transport hubs. School re-openings after the winter vacation were delayed and population movements were severely curtailed. Dozens of cities implemented family outdoor restrictions, which typically meant that only one member of each household was permitted to leave the home every couple of days to collect necessary supplies. Within weeks, China had managed to test 9 million people for SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan. It set up an effective national system of contact tracing. […] Moreover, the Chinese readily adopted mask wearing. “Compliance was very high,” said Xi Chen.  (Yale School of Public Health, New Haven, Connecticut, USA). […]

On Feb 5, 2020, Wuhan opened three so-called fangcang hospitals. Another 13 would appear over the next few weeks. The hospitals were established within public venues.  […] A modelling study co-authored by Chen calculated that the public health actions undertaken by China between January 29 and February 29 may have prevented 1.4 million infections and 56,000 deaths. […]

“Commitment to the greater good is engrained in the culture; there is not the hyper-individualism that characterizes parts of the USA and has driven most of the resistance to the countermeasures against the coronavirus.”

Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group (Rochester, Minnesota, USA)  noted that the Chinese accept the notion that disease control is a matter of science. “China does not have the kind of raucous anti-vaccine, anti-science movement that is trying to derail the fight against COVID-19 in the USA”, he said.

 

So much for early October 2020. Now let’s move on to the present day.

As to February 10, 2022, according to data provided by the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine:
PRC (about one billion 400 million inhabitants): the confirmed deaths from SARS-CoV-2 are 4,851 (4,512 of whom died during the early stages of the epidemic in Hubei, the province where Wuhan is located) and the people who are fully vaccinated are 87.88% of the population;
USA (approximately 331 million inhabitants): the confirmed deaths from SARS-CoV-2 are 912,257 and the people who are fully vaccinated are 64.97% of the population;
Italy: (about 59.55 million inhabitants ): the confirmed deaths from SARS-CoV-2 are 149,896 and the people who are fully vaccinated are 77.65% of the population;
United Kingdom: (approximately 68 million inhabitants): the confirmed deaths from SARS-CoV-2 are 159,503and the people who are fully vaccinated are 72.78% of the population.

The figures are undeniable and show that China has chosen and managed to contain the number of victims much more effectively than Western countries.
What were China’s strengths when it first found itself fighting a new and unknown epidemic alone?

The Lancet again, October 2020:

“Despite being the first place to be hit by COVID-19, China was wellplaced to tackle the disease. It has a centralized epidemic response system. Most Chinese adults remember SARSCoV (the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus, which originated the 2003 SARS outbreak) and the high mortality rate that was associated with it. “The society was very alert as to what can happen in a coronavirus outbreak,” said Xi Chen (Yale School of Public Health, New Haven, Connecticut, USA). “Other countries do not have such fresh memories of a pandemic.” 

Ageing parents tend to live with their children, or alone but nearby. Only 3% of China’s elderly population live in care homes, whereas in several western countries such facilities have been major sources of infection”.


We should add to this the extreme efficiency of a system which, although structured on different levels of governance, is able to centralize its response when faced with crises and emergency situations. As stated in article 3 of the Constitution, “…The division of functions and powers between the central and local state institutions shall honor the principle of giving full play to the initiative and motivation of local authorities under the unified leadership of the central authorities”.

Thus, when the outbreak was discovered in Wuhan, after an initial period of confusion, the country was soon able to mobilize massive structural and human resources to prevent the spread of the virus.

If these are the undeniable strengths of the Chinese system, we should, even so, not overlook that in its response to the pandemic the PRC has had to tackle various critical issues. The first and foremost of those issues is that China is still a developing country struggling with numerous contradictions, including stark imbalances between differently developed areas. So, while some cities have excellent medical resources, many rural areas are still extremely deficient.
In absolute terms of medical resources and infrastructure, in fact, China lags far behind the United States, with
the number of intensive care unit (ICU) beds per capita being only one-tenth of that in the USA andhaving less than a quarter of nurses calculated for every 1000 patients.


It is obvious that if medical resources and infrastructures are plentiful, it is easier for a society to cope with an epidemic, but if they are scarce, the medical system will soon collapse, overwhelmed by waves of patients. When prevention and control fail, there is only treatment to rely on, and then a public health crisis turns into a matter of personal medicine, in which the patients have no choice but to seek medical treatment that can heal and save them. It goes without saying that the possibility of obtaining it is directly proportional to the economic resources available to the patient.

The Chinese government’s strategy has focused on prevention and control, the key to public health in infectious diseases.  Conversely, in the USA and in the vast majority of developed countries, the virus was essentially first allowed to run its course, with widespread infections and deaths, then the focus shifted onto developing and promoting vaccines, vaccinating as many people as possible to strengthen their immunity against Covid 19.

When personal medicine is prioritized over public health, it is the frail and vulnerable that pay the price. In the United States, these are mainly found within the most discriminated ethnic groups, so it is hardly surprising that in the first half of 2020 alone, the life expectancy of black men in the U.S. plummeted by three years, according to the CDC.

Moving on?

On February 3, 2022, the article “Goodbye, Omicron: the White House looks to the next phase of the pandemic” appeared in Politico, a US magazine widely popular in the Beltway.  The article opens like this:

“The White House is preparing to move on from Omicron.  Emboldened by falling case counts, the Biden administration is plotting a new phase of the pandemic response aimed at containing the coronavirus and conditioning Americans to live with it. 

The preparations are designed to capitalize on a break in the months long Covid-19 surge, with officials anticipating a spring lull that could boost the nation’s mood and lift President Joe Biden’s approval ratings at a critical moment for his party”.

The article is very long, but we believe that the opening words are sufficient to give a general idea of the priorities and modes of action of the US government, which are not very dissimilar from most governments in the so-called “liberal democracies”.

 

A few days later, exactly on February 6, Global Times, an offshoot of the CPC’s official newspaper, published an interview with Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, advocating a diametrically opposite policy with respect to the pandemic.

“No matter how hard Western media outlets and observers slander China’s zero-tolerance policy in fighting COVID-19, Chinese policymakers and epidemiologists consider that it is still the best way to reduce the catastrophic outcome of a reckless reopening.


With the help of its zero-tolerance policy, China has experienced a much less severe epidemic compared to other countries. In sharp contrast to the death toll of more than 800,000 in the US, China has not seen a large number of deaths caused by the epidemic after the early outbreak in Wuhan in 2020. Reduced death toll proves this policy works, which has been also effective for the social and economic development, Wu noted.”

 

Final reflections

Once again China, confirming its zero tolerance policy towards the pandemic, is going in the opposite direction from that followed by Western countries. Why?

In Chinese social media, especially since Omicron became the prevailing variant of the virus, the debate on the zero tolerance policy has recently heated up, with many calling for a major change.
On January 25, 2022, Pekingnology translated and published a post titled “A comparison between COVID control in China and U.S.,” which had appeared the previous week in the WeChat blog “Chairman Rabbit“. Ren Yi, the author of the blog, strongly supports the zero tolerance policy. Here are some of his points. I won’t comment on them but will leave them to the personal reflection of the readers instead.

I) In reference to cultural values:

“…We have a tradition of respecting the elderly and a vision for prosperity for all and the common good for the world. These are in our cultural heritage and genes.

In some societies, people are selfish, independent, and only watching for their own good…  everyone fends for themselves – they are not entitled to anything. This is the New World born from settling and occupation – the “free world.” That is to say, the United States of America.

Between China and the US, which can be more tolerant of the death of the elderly? The death of the weak? The death of a million people?

The US, of course.

In pursuit of “herd immunity,” society can overlook these burdens – carry on without the burden. A million are “abandoned” so that those who remain can move on.”

However… in the US, those who are “abandoned” will in fact not necessarily complain. They live in a society with the value system of “relying on ourselves”, believing that’s just what happens. This is the “free world” for the “survival of the fittest.”


II) In reference to the nature of the political and government system, as well as the relationship between it and the citizens:

“In China, the government is omnipotent and bears all political and ethical responsibilities. The people’s expectations for the government have no limits and may change at any time. Their demand for the government may change rapidly – the people don’t even have to be reasonable in their demands. The government must solve problems by all means and take responsibility, and this responsibility is both political and moral.

Therefore, that a million people die due to COVID-19 is acceptable in the US, but it isn’t in China.”

SOURCES

CGTN. “Who Are CPC’s New Leaders?”

 John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Centre, accessed February 10, 2022

https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html

 “Pekingnology,” accessed February 8, 2022

The Lancet, China’s successful control of COVID-19, October 8, 2020

 Adam Cancryn, Politico: So long, Omicron: White House eyes next phase of pandemic, February 3, 2022

A tale of two systems: Eric X. Li at TEDGlobal ( Englobed) 2013

Chinese Civilisation and the Chinese Communist Party – Martin Jacques’s video

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Stefania Fusero is an independent researcher, on the advisory board of Friends of Socialist China and collaborates with La Città Futura.

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