The Chinese Meltdown

In your own languaje

Eduardo del Buey
Photo: Reuters
La Jornada Maya

Tuesday february 18, 2020

I always tell my students that in crisis management, the sign of good leadership is how well your communications team operates and how the public is impacted by your messages and delivery.

I teach them that the head of the organization responsible for managing the crisis must show face from the very beginning, ensure that the communications team has all of the information required to share with the public, is free to challenge management with respect to messaging and delivery, and is partnered with an operational team that is managing the technical aspects of the crisis in a professional and timely manner.

Using these criteria, I must conclude that the Chinese government has failed miserably in managing the coronavirus crisis. It has put many more people in danger of catching the virus and possibly dying from its effects than it would have had it acted in an immediate, honest, and proactive manner.

When the virus first broke out in early December in Wuhan (a major air and railway hub linking all parts of China), the provincial governor decided to keep it secret because he did not want the outbreak to affect an important Communist Party congress taking place in that city at the time.

In fact, he had medical authorities muzzled and the press contained thanks to the overall censorship that pervades in China. However, it appears that there are underground communications channels beyond the control of Chinese authorities and these began to publicize the existence of this virus and the effects that it was having on Wuhan.

At the beginning of the outbreak, Chinese authorities arrested eight doctors who had reported their suspicions that the symptoms displayed by infected patients could well become a new SARS like epidemic like the one that began in China in 2003 and went on to spread globally. Li Wenliang, one of the eight doctors arrested for speaking out about the pandemic, later died of the virus and, since then, figures indicate that this crisis has already surpassed SARS in terms of victims and fatalities.

One would have thought that Chinese authorities would have learned how to manage a pandemic of this nature. But, the Chinese government’s reaction to this outbreak was a combination of suppression and oppression.

This is the price of running a controlled society.

Rather than empower medical authorities to manage a crisis from the beginning, quarantine Wuhan immediately and allow media to inform the public to take steps to prevent its spread, the highly centralized Chinese government decided to put politics ahead of safety, proceed with the Communist Party Congress and try to avoid China losing face once again as the source of another global pandemic.

As the Spanish say, this “attempt to block the sun with one finger” has backfired seriously, and, while Wuhan was eventually quarantined, authorities calculate that some five million people had left the city before this step was taken.

The late and reluctant reaction by Chinese authorities has produced a number of serious short- and long-term threats to the regime.

In the short term, the rapid expansion of the virus during the time that authorities were ignoring it is seriously disrupting the Chinese economy. Workers have not been able to return to their factories after the Chinese New Year break, business people cannot travel to or from China, and supply chains are set to possibly change as other producers step into the breach.

Exports are suffering

Supply chains around the world are slowing or shutting down due to a lack of components and finished goods from Chinese suppliers. Since the end of the Chinese New Year holiday period, workers have not been allowed to return to their home towns and factories consequently have been closed. Nissan in Japan, for example, has shut down assembly lines in view of the lack of components from Chinese factories.

As well, the production of medical supplies such as masks and gowns made in Wuhan may well find themselves reassigned to other countries as a result of export disruptions to global customers.

And the tourism industry worldwide is feeling the impact of the absence of Chinese tourists, of vital importance to countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

The social and political impact is even more serious.

The Chinese political system has always depended on a social contract of sorts between government and society.

Government would ensure the safety of its citizens and provide a secure political and social climate within which to develop rapidly and create a strong economy capable of lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty and, in return, the public would accept strong political and social controls by an omnipresent Communist Party.

This pact is now unravelling.

There are reports of many demonstrations in China against the government’s handling of this crisis, and if they continue, they could call into question the government’s ability to continue its strategy of suppression and oppression.

In my book “Crisis y Comunicacion” I write that it is essential for a leader to show up at the beginning of a crisis, display empathy for the victims, and show how under their leadership, steps are being taken to address the crisis and avoid a similar crisis in future.

Once again, the leadership failed.

Although the outbreak took place in early December, and finally went public at the end of the year, Chinese authorities took a month to quarantine the source city. It took no steps to preclude travel from China to the rest of the world despite the highly infectious nature of the virus and the millions of people who travel to and from China and through Wuhan every month.

While airlines took individual decisions to suspend flights on their own, Chines aeronautical authorities have not yet shut down flights into and out of China. The result is that the virus has spread to other countries through tourists and business travelers travelling from China, and this in turn has put many lives at risk globally.

While the World Health Organization (WHO) has praised the openness of Chinese authorities in providing the organization with information, I would disagree. Many experts believe that the figures about victims of the virus and the resulting deaths are being kept artificially low by Chinese authorities in order to save face.

So, Chinese politics trump local and global health and safety.

Political realities condemn hundreds, if not thousands, to death, all in order to maintain the façade that China is now a sophisticated global power and a respected member of the global community.

International organizations such as the WHO can only operate on the figures provided by the host government. In this case it has been slow and coming.

However, the WHO was also very slow in labelling the outbreak a global pandemic.

Was this the result of organization ineptitude or Chinese pressure?

Someday we will know. For now, both the Chinese government and the WHO have lost credibility in the eyes of many.

Another surprising development is the fact that Chinese President Xi Jin-ping has not visited Wuhan almost two months after the outbreak in order to empathize with victims of the pandemic. Avoiding showing face at the beginning of a crisis is unacceptable in any civilized society. Not showing up two months to show up is unforgivable. There are ways to preclude that he avoids contamination yet connects with the victims.

Leadership is demonstrating courage and empathy and, too dare, he has demonstrated neither.

While the leadership is absent, the people depend on their own devices to spread the word and demonstrate their disapproval.

In this case, the growing negative response by Chinese across the country to the government’s handling of the situation does not auger well for short- or long-term stability.

The arrests of the eight doctors who first expressed their concerns together with the death of Li Wenliang have created a group of martyrs who will stand as examples of the government’s unwillingness to protect its citizens from harm. Their credibility is excellent since they are not political activists out to embarrass the government but, rather, medical professionals simply doing their jobs.

Meanwhile, the credibility of the Chinese government is under attack from its own citizens as well as the international community. Indeed, at time of writing, heads were beginning to roll in Wuhan as the central government and President Xi struggle to retain the confidence of the Chinese public.

The Chinese government is the victim of the very system that has kept it in power for seventy years. By trying to control everything, it may wind up controlling little after the current crisis has subsided. By trying to suppress the free exchange of information among its own citizenry and between government and citizens it may be sowing the seeds of its own eventual destruction.

China today has a vibrant middle and upper class – one that is sophisticated and worldly.

These citizens may not take kindly to a government that has placed their health and lives in jeopardy for purely ideological reasons. If the ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong are any inspiration, people on the mainland may begin to demand changes in governance that would place the viability of a communist government in question. Indeed, there is already a national campaign underwritten by intellectuals and academics demanding freedom of speech – the very element missing from the government’s management of this crisis from its inception.

Change may not happen today or tomorrow.

But it will come eventually as the government begins to realize that the only way to keep the faith with the public is to have faith in the public – that openness is essential for a sophisticated and connected society to survive and flourish.

And this is the dynamic that will determine the longevity of the Chinese communist regime.

[email protected]