China, Covid-19 and the future of communism

Chairman Mao: The founding father of the People’s Republic of China (with anti-virus mask added).

Could Covid-19 be the death of communism? Demands for freedom of speech and anger at the government’s handling of the epidemic are plunging China into its biggest crisis in 30 years.

“Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men?”

Enraged Chinese citizens are sharing these lyrics from the musical Les Misérables on social media to express their anger with the communist regime. In a country where freedom of speech is tightly controlled, this small act of rebellion may be a sign of things to come.

Why are they angry? The death of Li Wenliang, the doctor who first drew attention to Covid-19, was a turning point. When he warned local officials of the virus, he was accused of “spreading rumours”. He is now hailed as a martyr, who spoke the truth whilst the government lied.

One-fifth of humanity lives under the control of the Communist Party of China, making its leader, Xi Jinping, one of the most powerful men on Earth.

Personal freedom is considered a Western idea, appropriate for capitalist democracies, but not a communist superpower. Instead, the regime promises the “Chinese Dream”: safety and prosperity under a strong authoritarian government.

But that dream is turning into a nightmare. The economy is slowing, parts of the country face food and water shortages, and now Covid-19 is tearing the system apart.

Last week, the number of deaths and infections soared as the government changed the way it counted cases of the virus.

Health experts fear China has deliberately hidden the extent of the crisis in order to give the impression it is in control. Parallels are drawn with Chernobyl and the Great Famine.

A massive ground operation to contain the virus has grabbed news headlines. Cities quarantined, hospitals built in days. But online, Chinese citizens are reporting a different story. One of police brutality, shortages of food and medicine, hospitals run like prisons.

President Xi has “removed” local party officials in Hubei – the epicentre of the outbreak – and blamed them for the crisis.

But critics say the whole system is rotten. The Chinese academic Xu Zhangrun accuses President Xi of turning a “natural disaster into an even greater man-made catastrophe”. The anger spilling out on to social media suggests he is not alone.

So, could the virus be the death of communism?

Sick of the system

Some say this is now inevitable. The economic miracle that has propped up the regime is coming to an end. Central government will try to place the blame elsewhere, but its inability to control the story as well as the virus has done lasting damage. Change may not come overnight – it may even take years for the communist system to unravel. But future historians will look back at 2020 as a key turning point.

This is wishful thinking, say others. It underestimates the Communist Party, which has survived seven decades in power and is currently stronger than ever. Using the latest technology, it has created a system of surveillance and a police state that will crush all dissent. Besides, Westerners forget how popular and deep rooted the “collectivist” ideals of communism are in China.

You Decide

  1. Do you always believe the people in charge?
  2. Does freedom of speech make a society more safe?

Activities

  1. Imagine you live in a country where you cannot trust anything anyone says. Write a diary of your day and include as many lies as possible. One page will do.
  2. The closest communism came to collapse was the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Research this event and write a paragraph explaining why communism survived.

Some People Say...

“A healthy society should not have only one voice.”

Li Wenliang (1986-2020), Chinese doctor who first raised the alarm about Covid-19

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The virus has so far infected 70,000 people and killed over 1,500; the vast majority in the central Chinese province of Hubei. However, emergency measures have been taken across the entire country. The Chinese government managed to contain a previous outbreak (Sars) in 2002-3, which killed 774, but the current crisis is now on a much bigger scale. Next month, an annual conference of the Communist Party will give an indication of the state of the regime and its leader, President Xi.
What do we not know?
Authoritarian regimes are incredibly secretive and it is almost impossible to know what is going on in the corridors of power in Beijing. The communist government will give the appearance of strength and stability and, at some point, will announce “victory” over the virus. The truth will be much harder to establish. Experts disagree on two main points: is China really winning the battle against Covid-19? And will the crisis make the government stronger or weaker in the longer term?

Word Watch

Covid-19
The new official name for the disease spread by the coronavirus.
Martyr
Someone who is killed for their beliefs. Li Wenliang died from Covid-19, but the implication is that his death (and many others) could have been avoided if he had been allowed to speak freely.
Communist Party
The ruling political party in China. The Chinese CP controls every part of people’s lives, with power over where they live and work, how many children they can have, and who they can talk to.
Capitalist democracies
Political and economic systems based around free markets and the right to choose political representatives.
Authoritarian
A system of government that requires strict obedience to authorities.
Chernobyl
The largest nuclear disaster in history took place in 1987 in the Soviet Union. There, the communist government hid the scale of the incident and it is regarded as one of the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.
Great Famine
Sweeping reforms in China in 1959 caused three years of famine and the deaths of tens of millions of people.
Dissent
The holding or expression of opinions against those widely or officially held; disagreement.
Collectivist
Relating to the idea or value that groups are more important than individuals.

Subjects

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