The Coronavirus Outbreak has Exposed the Deep Flaws of China’s Autocracy

February 10, 2020

‘But it is the chronic weaknesses in the political system that exacerbated the spread of the virus in the first place.
The authoritarian strictures of the Chinese party state place a premium on the control of information in the name of maintaining stability. In such a system, lower-level officials have no incentive to report bad news up the line. Under Xi, such restrictions have grown tighter.’

China’s political system was meant to be all-powerful, capable of dealing with any crisis. The death of one doctor has shaken that claim.

Soon after Li Wenliang succumbed to the coronavirus in Wuhan early on Friday morning, a drawing of the Chinese doctor appeared on the internet, sleeping and being hoisted gently into heaven by an angel.

From late in the evening until dawn yesterday, Chinese citizens stayed up, posting emotional tributes and venting their fury at the government over the treatment of the 34-year-old ophthalmologist, who had tried to warn the authorities about the virus in late December, only to be told by the police to shut up.

The authorities, seemingly in a panic at the outpouring of grief and anger, announced that Li was still being treated before reposting confirmation of his death hours later. “You think we’ve all gone to sleep?” posted one netizen? “No. We haven’t.”

In an interview with Chinese magazine Caixin before his death, Li delivered his own verdict on the government’s handling of the issue: “I think there should be more than one voice in a healthy society.”

It is wise to be cautious about the political impact of a single event or, in this case, one person’s death, especially in China, which is ruled by an opaque Communist party. After all, can a virus that has so far claimed more than 700 lives, fewer than in a normal flu season in many countries, really hold the future of China in its thrall?

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