(Last of Two Parts)
Reading between the lines of Xi Jinping’s recent addresses highlights that even he knows the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has underperformed relative to its own goals, from sparking domestic innovation to improving emergency response mechanisms. Despite Beijing’s claims to be a global leader in fighting the virus, the PRC medical establishment is behind, not ahead, in the battle against the contagion.
Xi said as much in a March 2 speech at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences in Beijing. After exhorting the assembled researchers to “speed up processes for drug development…[and] accelerate the development of vaccines,” he instructed them on how: by “closely monitoring the progress of foreign research and development, strengthening cooperation, and striving to promote clinical trials and marketing of vaccines as soon as possible.”
Xi doesn’t believe that Chinese researchers can make advances on their own. They must therefore follow and try to join foreign efforts. Appropriating foreign technology and then applying the CCP’s “systematic advantage” of central coordination, of which the official People’s Daily recently boasted, is the PRC’s best hope for positioning itself as a world leader.
How can we be sure this formula is what Xi had in mind? Ten days before his speech, the CCP moved to radically change the way Chinese scientists were rewarded and promoted. After 20 years of relying on the Science Citation Index of peer-reviewed English-language publications, the PRC Ministries of Education and of Science and Technology announced that they were seeking new criteria “to reverse the phenomenon of one-sided, excessive, and distorted use of SCI paper-related indicators.”
Describing the development as potentially the party’s “biggest shake-up of research and development policy in decades,” the South China Morning Post traced it to the “sluggish response of the scientific community to the COVID-19 outbreak.”
PRC Ministry of Finance alum and prominent economic pundit Jia Kang agrees: “The biggest warning to us from the two outbreaks of SARS and the novel coronavirus is that our R&D achievements in epidemic prevention technology are obviously insufficient.”
Not only is the PRC incapable of addressing the health problems it has unleashed, it is likely to be the source of future contagions. The propaganda line is that Beijing “bought the world time” to prepare for the coronavirus with its draconian, but effective, lockdown of Wuhan. In Chinese, party elites admit that their response was ineffective and counterproductive.
Again, Xi alluded to this in his March 2 speech, acknowledging a need to “improve the early warning and forecasting mechanism for epidemic prevention and control, capture information in a timely and effective manner, and take timely response measures.” If the regime had reacted well, he would not have needed to tell cadres to “study and establish a command, action, and support system for scientific research,…prepare emergency action guides during ordinary times, and start quickly in emergency situations.”
This gap is not for lack of effort. In the wake of the SARS contagion 17 years ago, the party established a nationwide network of cells tasked with reporting on any outbreaks at the local level. Nonetheless, COVID-19 was clearly not detected and then suppressed with early action, and this catastrophe is only going to exacerbate the regime’s problems with timely coordination and responses.
As one Chinese military strategist noted, what lower-level official will be willing to make a decision about anything in the wake of the coronavirus experience? Or, in the words of a civilian commentator, emergency response is currently a priority because of recent events, but, going forward, “everyone knows that once something loses the attention and support of the main leaders of the party and government at all levels in China, it will be very difficult to handle it well.”
Where does this leave Xi? From the start of the epidemic he has linked it to the threat of political and social unrest. His first public guidance about COVID-19 in late January stressed the importance of “leading public opinion” and maintaining “the overall stability of society” in the same breath as curbing the epidemic’s spread and treating patients.
In remarks to fellow elites over the next two months, Xi repeatedly mentioned the potential for “social disorder” and “psychological problems” created by the virus to endanger “social stability” — code for threatening the party’s rule.
Other official sources have elaborated on the emergence of negative “rumors” about the epidemic, which compel “accurately identifying, cracking down, and daring to fight” culprits. Xi’s paeans to the upgraded neighborhood watch — or, in CCP parlance, “grid management” — system of domestic surveillance, ostensibly designed to monitor patients and ensure food and medicine delivery to closed residential complexes, suggest it is here to stay.
With regard to foreign policy, Xi has implicitly endorsed the Wolf Warrior-style diplomacy of leading PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials and ambassadors. Less reported but as important is the increasing tempo of People’s Liberation Army forays into disputed waters and airspace, from the Taiwan Strait to the South China Sea. These overt offensives are complemented by a more insidious ploy. CCP diplomats are traveling the world extolling the efficacy of traditional Chinese medicine and propounding the PRC’s “Health Silk Road.”
They are encouraging other countries to sign up for digital health solutions offered by the PRC tech companies Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (nicknamed, perhaps more aptly than we knew, “the BATs”). This is spyware intended to support the PRC’s quest for foreign intellectual property. Tech firms on the mainland are beholden to the party and by law must share their data with it.
If we accept the propaganda, the BATs have been at the forefront of virus contact tracing and treatment, but the PRC’s “Health Code” virus screening app has been so unreliable that Chinese netizens decided the whole system was just “for appearances,” The Guardian recently reported. Good luck to any countries that allow their scientists and patients to transfer their data (and open up their personal devices) to a party determined to spy its way to S&T leadership.
As with Xi’s domestic policies, the new foreign moves inspire some elites to wonder if the cure is not worse than the disease. Calls for a reversion to Deng Xiaoping’s “hiding and biding” strategy for getting along with the rest of the world are increasing. A nascent insurgency against Xi’s signature approaches is clear, but the outcome remains uncertain. Washington would be wise to prepare for draconian domestic conditions and hostile foreign policies from Beijing for some time, unless and until Xi departs the scene or the party forces a change.
(This article was first published in The American Interest on April 23, 2020, under the title “INFIGHTING: A Chastened China Girds for Conflict.” It is republished here with permission. Part 1 can be found at this link.)
Author: Jacqueline Deal
Jacqueline Deal is president of the Long Term Strategy Group, a defense consultancy; co-founder of the American Academy for Strategic Education, a non-profit that teaches strategy; and senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.