|27 January, 2020

For China, communication and control are key to tackling virus: Peter Apps

China has been able to respond in a way it's almost impossible to imagine any other country beginning to be capable of.

People wearing face masks use their cellphones at the Tiananmen Square, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Beijing, China January 27, 2020.

People wearing face masks use their cellphones at the Tiananmen Square, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Beijing, China January 27, 2020.

Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

LONDON- When the SARS virus spread across China in 2002-3, the government in Beijing reacted with secrecy and obstruction. This year's coronavirus outbreak is being tackled very differently – a key test for President Xi Jinping and the increasingly sophisticated authoritarian system he presides over.

One thing is certain: China has been able to respond in a way it's almost impossible to imagine any other country beginning to be capable of. That means not just a colossal deployment of state resources – up to half a million healthcare workers being rushed to the most affected city, Wuhan, and the wider province of Hubei, and two new hospitals said to be being built in little more than a week. It also means a measure of centralized state control that has effectively locked down not just the immediate area but much of China's national transit system.

As with all infectious disease outbreaks, how successful those steps will be depends on whether China can change its citizens' behaviour fast enough to stay ahead of a disease that is very much still being understood. That also means incentivizing its local officials to communicate details swiftly and efficiently, rather than covering them up as they did during 2002-3 for fear of official retribution. Much of that will depend on the nature of the virus and how it develops. Xi warned this weekend that it appeared to be becoming more contagious.

That the Chinese leader himself was taking such a forward- leaning position is itself a major change. Because of Xi's leadership, along with economic growth, technological change and more, China is now a very different place to the turn-of-the-century, albeit still very much the same melting pot of humans, animals and highly mobile populations that helped produce that outbreak. Those in charge in Beijing now have much greater ability to monitor and persuade their population, as well as exert direct control over those with authority on the ground.


Already, social media platforms such as Weibo have seen what appeared to be centrally coordinated campaigns using celebrities and social media influencers to push people away from using wildlife markets such as that believed to have been the epicentre of the virus. Transport networks have been shut down with remarkable speed, and within the worst affected areas most of the local population wants to stay inside and limit social interaction.

Such direct control has been simply impossible in most outbreaks elsewhere in the world, such as that of Ebola in West Africa from 2013-16. Then, while regional transport networks also largely ceased, that was largely due to trucking and other firms simply stopping work, with much less central coordination. There's no doubt many local and regional officials in China still fear the consequences of speaking bad news to power, but it may well be that Xi has successfully instilled even more fear of being caught covering up such details.

Containing a respiratory disease like coronavirus is more challenging than a hemorrhagic outbreak such as Ebola, which is only communicable through direct touch and bodily fluids. Corona may even be infectious before symptoms appear, which would make it much harder to lock down.


New technology may provide some good news, in terms of much faster testing and the development of new vaccines and treatments.

Whatever the immediate outcome of the outbreak, one more lasting legacy might well be even greater centralization. On a host of health fronts including drug regulation, China retains a far from effective provincial structure that experts say has often made addressing health problems more difficult.

Indeed, in some ways China seems to be using this entire situation to demonstrate the reach and effectiveness of its technological authoritarian structure, increasingly using the combination of mass surveillance and big data to monitor and coerce its population in ways that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. It's a structure that has been tested most recently by unrest in Hong Kong, with the crackdown against ethnic Muslim Uighurs in northwest China a stark demonstration of just how brutal the system can be. Structures that have effectively locked down an entire province and reportedly incarcerated well over a million people – while ruthlessly monitoring the rest – can relatively easily be repurposed to track disease, however.

For now, few doubt more cases are inevitable – and a truly major crisis might undercut confidence in Xi and his model. If they are able to avoid that, however, those in charge in Beijing will likely see it as more evidence to support the authoritarian, technological environment they hope to build, and which they believe offers the only hope of keeping on top of the problems of a fast, unpredictable and increasingly dangerous era.

*** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party, and is an active fundraiser for the party.

(Editing by Giles Elgood) ((giles.elgood@thomsonreuters.com))