China’s leadership has changed nothing since the SARS crisis to better respond to such emergencies. The system of KP rule does not even allow that, historian Lifan Zhang says in the DW interview.
Deutsche Welle: How do you assess the party’s performance in the current crisis?
Lifan Zhang: Although the party leadership has promised a lot after the SARS crisis in 2002/2003 when it comes to modernizing governance and establishing effective mechanisms for crisis management, you can see that nothing substantial has happened in the past 17 years. That is why the failure of leadership is now repeating itself, with much greater effects.
It turns out that the coronavirus not only infects people but the political system. The system of governance dates back to feudal times. It is not modern at all and therefore cannot work in the event of a crisis.
What do you specifically criticize?
The measures are taken late against the mysterious lung diseases and the rapid spread of the virus is a result of the censorship. The rulers do not care about the right to freedom of expression when it comes to stability, the stability of the CP leadership. You are ready to sacrifice everything to achieve this goal.
Then let’s take a look at the composition of the eight-person central anti-virus department headed by Prime Minister Li Keqiang. There is no medical doctor at the table here. Two members are responsible for propaganda. The Foreign Minister is also a member. So people who have no idea are now telling the doctors what to do.
How is the party trying to distract from its mistakes?
That is exactly the task of this staff unit: damage limitation at home and abroad, damage to the reputation of the party, mind you. At home, it limits access to information and brings “positive energy” to the people. State television broadcasts praise from abroad for the leadership’s performance in the crisis. They come mainly from countries that have benefited greatly from China’s funds.
The failings of the CP in the fight against the virus are downplayed on the international stage. The government has stepped up lobbying at the World Health Organization (WHO) to delay the proclamation of an “international health emergency” for as long as possible. ( On January 30, the WHO declared this emergency but refused to issue a travel warning. Editor’s note )
Is the Party’s rule under threat?
In the days of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, there was no internet. News, especially bad news, is now circulating the web at lightning speed. This is the greatest challenge facing the CP government. Censorship and freedom of expression are not always successful. The people are not stupid. Many party officials also know that they are telling the untruths.
Greater popular resistance is unlikely, however, because people are afraid of the virus and avoid gatherings. The rulers, on the other hand, currently feel quite comfortable in their war-like condition. Martial law was practically imposed in and around Wuhan, soldiers and special forces are deployed. The distribution of goods is also controlled centrally. At the same time, the KP uses modern surveillance technologies to control people even more under the pretext of fighting viruses. All actors, neighborhood committees and authorities are networked in a grid, for the ultimate goal of total surveillance.
How will the KP continue to act?
It continues according to the motto: only report good news and keep silent bad news! Before bad news becomes public, it is first concealed. If it becomes public anyway, it will be interpreted from bad to good news. As long as the authorities say nothing, everyone is telling the falsehood. As soon as the authorities have taken a position, everyone falls into action, as in any authoritarian country. However, it is too late for those who suffer.
Lifan Zhang is a critical historian and political commentator. He lives in the Chinese capital Beijing.
The interview was conducted by William Yang.