Resuming work and containing virus: Two conflicting goals

February 20, 2020 17:04
Employees work on a production line at a clothing factory in Shijiazhuang in Hebei province. Despite calls to resume normal operations, the situation on the ground is pretty grim due to continuing fears over the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: CNS via Reuter

The coronavirus outbreak has created conflicts between central and local government officials in China.

One major point of contention is the pace of resumption of work at businesses that were ordered shut earlier to prevent the spread of the virus.

Top Chinese leaders have stressed that containing the Covid-19 outbreak and sustaining economic growth are equally important, but local officials are finding it extremely hard to strike a balance between the two potentially incompatible goals.

On one hand, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the National Development & Reform Commission have reiterated calls for factories and companies to restart work.

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism has also announced the reopening of the West Lake Scenic Area in Hangzhou and Confucius Temple in Nanjing.

It is said that over 50 percent of larger-sized industrial enterprises in richest provinces have resumed production.

Yet if we take a look at Apple supplier Foxconn, for example, although it has resumed operations at its factory in Zhengzhou in Henan province since February 10, less than 1,000 workers have returned to the factory complex, which typically bustles with 250,000 workers on a normal day.

There is obviously a gap between the local reality and what Beijing wants to see.

The fact is that while central government officials have urged factories and businesses to resume operation, a large number of Chinese cities continue to impose travel curbs and quarantine measures, with some even stepping up the restrictions.

At the moment, over 80 Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen have yet to relax the rules aimed at containing the virus outbreak.

Take Hubei, the epicenter of the epidemic. Locals there are ordered to stay at home, with daily necessities such as basic staple food delivered to each household once every five days. Previously, people were allowed to go to supermarket every other day.

Married couples are ordered to sleep in different beds, according to a notice issued by one community in Xianning in Hubei province. Family members should also eat separately, and wear face masks at home.

If residents are banned from leaving their homes, how can they possibly go to work?

Such strong quarantine measures are set to undermine economic growth. Local officials are well aware of the negative impact. But too much is at stake, and their political careers are also on the line, if the virus outbreak cannot be brought under control.

Hence, they have no choice but to kick the can down the road and worry about the economic setback later on.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 19

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist