Coronavirus exposes the great myth of Xi’s China

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When I arrived in Washington, D.C., as a China specialist from the Ivory Tower (in my case, Ithaca, New York), I experienced a profound culture shock when it came to how China was discussed among academics, policy wonks and political leaders inside the Beltway. China was overwhelmingly described as inexorably rising, on the fast track to supplant the United States as a global superpower. The sustained growth of China’s economy, the People’s Liberation Army’s successful maneuvers in the South China Sea, the 5G high-tech revolution and Beijing’s unprecedented outward-oriented foreign investment created an image of an unstoppable global juggernaut, which was, many articulated, ready to “eat our lunch.” The empirical facts surrounding these developments, if not quite these conclusions, are unassailable. But they tell only a part of the story, while leaving an at least equally crucial dimension unstated, unexplored and woefully under-analyzed. 

I lived in China for seven years, beginning in 1988. I have spent the lion’s share of my time outside of the capital, Beijing, mostly in the provinces, researching and interacting with local governments and non-elites in Chinese society. The picture that has formed over this period is that of a country barely able to hold itself together, as I would joke to friends and colleagues, pieced together with duct tape and dental floss.

Although the system is hardwired for long-term planning, it seemed like state and society was perpetually convulsed with the imperatives of getting to the next Communist Party Congress without the wheels coming off. An impossibly complex and overwrought political system in which the Chinese Communist Party snaked its way throughout the government, military and society was continually fighting tendencies in the localities to undermine national-level dictates.  

The reality – hiding in plain sight – is as profound as it is counter-intuitive: China is one of the most decentralized governments in the world, in which much of the decision making that results in political and policy outcomes is constantly shaped – or subverted – at the local levels.

Put differently, when people think about the Chinese state, they think about Beijing, with the rest of China’s continental-sized landmass as an afterthought. But consider a system of some three-dozen provincial-level entities, 300 prefectures, 2,000 counties and 46,000 townships, as well as up to a million villages and hamlets, in which even third-tier cities number upwards of ten million residents each. Successfully managing the largest (1.4 billion) and one of the most competitive and ungovernable populations in the world (just try boarding a train in China’s interior, and you’ll see what I mean) is the impossibly nightmarish mandate that confronts China’s leaders every day.

The party, particularly under Xi Jinping, acts to rein in some of this activity, with sometimes impressive, but incomplete and often inadequate results. This is the China (frantically treading water domestically) that does not appear in the Beltway narrative of the PRC. But it is every bit as real as – and arguably even more so than – the rising power image. 

The novel coronavirus outbreak, which is on the cusp of turning into a pandemic, brings a much-needed corrective to the foregoing image of China. It underscores just how shaky China’s ability to manage this crisis is; it lays bare the myth that Xi Jinping’s China is fundamentally different from what it has been for decades, and it raises all sorts of questions about the extent of China’s state capacity. The incentives for local leaders to cover up bad news (lest they be fingered in the next round of anti-corruption crackdowns) is a victory of ephemeral parochial concerns over effective management of a crisis; the ex post firing of local government and party leaders is solely a reactive exercise that does nothing to put proper mechanisms in place; the breathless construction of prefabricated hospitals recalls elements of Maoist mass campaigns (and their ineffectiveness); and Xi’s recent efforts to place “his people” in positions of managing the crisis undermines his attempts to curtail factionalism and personal fiefdoms in China.

How we respond to the coronavirus is best left to medical experts. But the larger lesson of the outbreak should be internalized by everybody who claims to possess policy-relevant knowledge of China, and should update our assumptions of what a growing China means to the United States and the world and how to manage the relationship: China is, as Susan Shirk wrote more than a decade ago, a “fragile superpower.” It is a lesson that we should not forget in the world of click-bait headlines and short-term career-enhancing analyses that frantically paint China as more powerful than it actually is. Otherwise, the quality of our policy knowledge base with regard to China will be akin to the silence of one hand clapping.

Andrew Mertha is Hyman Professor of China Studies and the director of China studies and director of SAIS China at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Tags Beijing China coronavirus outbreak novel coronavirus Wuhan Xi Jinping

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