China wages a two-front war amid virus crisis

February 25, 2020 10:47
Xi Jinping has made it clear that fighting the coronavirus and restoring economic activities are equally important for China. Photo: Reuters

Generations of journalism students have been told that if a plane crashes, it's news. If it doesn’t crash, it's not news. Hence, news tends to be bad news.

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that in reporting on the coronavirus currently afflicting China, attention is focused on the number of new infections and deaths every day. Hence, it came as something of a surprise when, on Feb. 6, at the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s daily press briefing, spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, before taking questions, that there was information from the National Health Commission that she wished to share.

During the 24 hours of Feb. 5, she announced, 261 patients had been cured and discharged while there had been 73 fatalities. Newly confirmed cases excluding Hubei, the disease’s epicenter, “declined for a second day starting from Feb. 4.”

It was a daring move, based on China's interpretation of the direction in which the fight against the virus was moving. But it was not without reason.

The previous day, President Xi Jinping met with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and informed the visitor that China’s “most thorough and rigorous measures” to fight the outbreak were "producing results.”

Xi has exuded confidence in this battle against the virus from the beginning. At his meeting with the WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Jan. 28, he let it be known that he was personally in charge of the campaign against the “devil” virus.

He showed how an authoritarian government could marshal resources in this battle, without having to answer annoying questions from media or legislators.

From Feb. 5 on, the Foreign Ministry each day began its briefing with a good-news report. And the figures continued to bear out the official optimism. After 10 days, it seemed evident that the virus was slowly but surely coming under control.

However, a number of events last week demonstrated that the virus wasn’t that easily conquered and was, in fact, a real “devil.”

On Feb 17, state news agency Xinhua made it known that the annual parliamentary meeting scheduled for March was likely to be postponed. The meeting is normally held alongside the annual meeting of the nation’s top advisory body, each attended by thousands of delegates. These meetings have not been postponed in 25 years.

In a way, it makes sense to postpone what is generally called the “two sessions.” After all, in 2003, when another virus lurked in China, the meetings went ahead with deadly consequences. Thousands of delegates from around the country descended on Beijing, bringing with them the SARS virus, and the capital became seriously infected. Clearly, China doesn’t want this to happen again.

On Wednesday, Xi convened a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, a seven-man body at the apex of the Communist party, which listened to reports on the campaign against the epidemic and studied the coordination of epidemic prevention and economic development. After studying “relevant opinions,” it decided to refer the matter to the full 25-member Politburo.

The decisive Politburo meeting, again presided over by Xi, was held two days later, on Feb. 21.

At that meeting, the Politburo decided that "a turning point in the development of the national epidemic situation has not yet arrived," meaning that the epidemic had not yet reached its peak. This was no doubt disappointing, but probably realistic, in view of outbreaks in hospitals in Beijing and clusters of infections in at least four prisons across three provinces.

A release issued after the meeting also highlighted “all-out epidemic control efforts in Beijing,” suggesting serious misgivings over the situation in the capital.

On Sunday, Xi delivered a major speech in which he called the current coronavirus threat the country’s "biggest public health emergency" in 70 years. He made it clear that fighting the virus alone was not enough because of the simultaneous need to advance on the economic front, after a month in which much of the economy had been locked down.

Calling the situation a crisis, Xi acknowledged shortcomings in the party’s response but still voiced confidence in eventual triumph, though he said there would be “a considerable impact on the Chinese economy and society.”

So China today is waging a two-front war. On one hand, it can’t let its guard down where the virus is concerned. On the other hand, it has to revive the economy, the basis for its global influence.

The stakes are high. The global audience is, in effect, viewing an epic battle in which China is battling two foes at the same time but cannot afford to lose either struggle. The final outcome will be big news indeed.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.