By Kalpit A Mankikar
China’s recent relaxation of its COVID-19 restrictions that were imposed since early 2020, and the consequent increase in cases have again added to a new problem for the world at large. The easing of curbs presents a chance for many Chinese to travel abroad after a long hiatus, especially ahead of the Lunar New Year which is observed on 22 January 2023, and is a time for family reunions. In China itself, millions of migrants will be on the move going to their hometowns and this raises the terrifying spectre of the spread of the contagion into the rural hinterland.
This migration of people is complicated by the fact that the world is largely in the dark regarding the details of the new surge in China. China has discontinued publishing statistics on deaths by the latest wave, and twisted the definition of what constitutes a death due to COVID-19, says the World Health Organization (WHO). China has disclosed only 22 deaths due to COVID-19 since December when it decided to abandon Xi Jinping’s Zero-COVID policy, which was once a much-vaunted policy, after nationwide protests erupted.
However, anecdotal tales abound on social media about rising death tolls among senior citizens and the overflowing funeral parlours clearly belie the window-dressing of the situation by the Communist Party of China (CPC). In light of China’s reopening, nations are demanding that Chinese travelling overseas take the COVID test, which has led to a considerable pushback from Beijing. The CPC has resorted to playing the victim card and its boilerplate template of “blaming the West” as evidenced by an article published in the CPC’s journal ‘Qiushi’ (meaning seeking truth) which states that Western media is trying to misrepresent and smear China’s epidemic prevention and control policy and that its attitude is motivated by political prejudices.
Simmering discontent in China
There is a heightened sense of threat to the CPC as evidenced by Xi Jinping’s report at the 20th Party Congress in October 2022, which cautioned that external forces were trying to contain, blockade, blackmail, and apply pressure on China.
Shortly after Xi secured his third term in office, protests erupted across cities in China against Xi’s Zero-COVID policy. While protests in China over localised issues are not unique, the demonstrations in 2022 rattled the Party since it was for the first time since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 that the Chinese population challenged the CPC’s political dominance. China’s elite too have been forced to take cognisance of this simmering discontent.
In his customary New Year’s eve address to the nation, Xi sounded a conciliatory note, saying that being a large nation it was natural for people to have differences, which could be bridged through dialogue. However, in light of the recent protests and the upheaval caused by China’s U-turn on the Zero-COVID policy, the CPC’s assessment of the domestic political climate is bleak. This has been reflected in the resolve of a recent meeting of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (CPLAC)—the CPC’s body for oversight of law enforcement measures—that some elements could make use of the epidemic to spread rumours and sabotage social stability, and that it was the paramount duty of security organs to protect national security and social order.
Xi himself termed the current situation as a “new phase that has tough challenges”, but even now the CPLAC’s assessment (and by extension the CPC’s view) that the Zero-COVID policy and the current U-turn on the policy are “both correct”. The CPC has survived in power for so long because it has maintained a monopoly on information flow and narratives. Thus, at a sensitive time like this, any admission on part of the ruling elite of the true number of deaths would have significant domestic ramifications.
Beyond the bamboo curtain
Truth has been the first casualty in Communist China. There have been theories swirling about the contagion and its link to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, adjacent to the market that was said to be the outbreak’s ground zero. Speculation has ranged from lax safety regulations at the institute to more serious allegations of biological warfare. Yet we are nowhere close to finding the truth about how coronavirus emerged since China has repeatedly blocked any meaningful investigation into its origins.
In fact, China has brazened it out by resorting to economic coercion against nations like Australia and imposed tariffs against the import of Australian wine, coal, and seafood, for seeking an independent inquiry into the origins of coronavirus.
At home, concerns over social stability led the Party to censure Dr Li Wenliang, who had alerted about early COVID-19 infections in 2020. Let us not forget while Xi knew about the existence of the virus early in January 2020, the CPC began making efforts to contain the spread of the virus after he had returned from a state visit to Myanmar nearly a fortnight later—a delay that led to millions of deaths worldwide. China has not learnt any lessons from its dereliction of duty in 2020, but the world community is right in seeking transparency from the CPC to protect its people.