Popular mobilisation is one of the key recurring elements that have characterised Chinese politics since Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and has entered Beijing’s political grammar as a well-established practice. It has featured prominently even after the reform era initiated by Deng Xiaoping, for instance after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The phenomenon of political mobilisation is a complex one that encompasses wielding narrative-ideological power to encourage individuals to activate themselves in pursuit of a common goal usually established by the regime, but perceived as a collective interest by society as a whole. As a matter of fact, governmental decision-making is not sufficient to kick-start popular mobilisation, as people need to voluntarily get involved too.
Although mobilisation in China has resurfaced beyond the Maoist era, the outbreak of Covid-19 has probably proved the most prominent instance of mass mobilisation in contemporary Chinese politics. This may not come as completely unexpected given that, since Xi Jinping took the helm of the Communist Party, the regime has increasingly adopted practices typical of the Maoist era.
In the early weeks after the outbreak, Chinese leadership remained remarkably inactive. Xi Jinping first available recorded demand for measures to contain the virus date to the 7th January according to Qiushi, the party’s political theory periodical, but by the 20th January the situation in Wuhan had worsened dramatically. On that day in fact Xi Jinping gave a speech which outlined the essentials for the campaign against the virus, effectively launching a mobilisation that was labelled as a “people’s war” – a term borrowed from the Maoist past – few days later.
The message conveyed to the public by the leadership was of utmost salience, as both PM Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping encouraged popular mobilisation while vice PM Sun Chunlan herself was leading the efforts on the field in Wuhan. Framing the pandemic as a tufa shijian, a term that indicates an emergency potentially undermining social stability, the leadership could downplay its responsibilities and call upon the population to unite and mobilise in order to overcome the obstacle on the path to “national rejuvenation”, a catchphrase used by the party leadership to mean the resurgence of the Chinese nation. On the 21st January the People’s Daily reported Xi Jinping’s appeal to all government officials and party members to prioritise the defence of public health and set up measures to prevent the spreading of the virus.
The Chinese political system responded as expected in these cases when a new national priority is made public. Given that for most local party officials the only way to advance in their career path is to be efficient in implementing central policies, local administrations sensed the salience of the new guide-lines presented by the central party and thus mobilised themselves to translate the policy into practice. In a couple of weeks over 760 million people were placed under lockdown of varying strictness.
Further encouraged by the demotion of Wuhan local party cadres over negligence, neighbourhood and local party committees – representing the grassroots level of the party hierarchy – have been the primary agents of the mobilisation: they engaged in propaganda efforts with public banners to communicate their disease prevention and control policies, converted public buildings into medical facilities for treatment and isolation of patients, adopted legislations to make it possible to requisition private properties to fight the virus, and even arranged checkpoints to control or block the entrance in several rural villages. Despite the political incentives to act, many of the above-mentioned measures have often been at odds with the legal framework on infectious disease control, which attributes jurisdiction to the cabinet-level National Health Commission and relegates local administrations to exclusively assist the agency. However, notwithstanding the scarce legal ground of these measures, judicial authorities have stressed that failure to comply with the new rules by any individual would constitute a criminal offence, in a textbook example of what Chinese “rule by law” means.
But the foot soldiers of the mobilisation have been hundreds of thousands of volunteers throughout the country, enforcing compliance in what can be termed a “social control campaign”. For weeks, grassroot volunteers sporting red armbands have carried out the basic tasks mandated by the central government and local administrations: they oversaw entrances and exits from neighbourhoods and residential complexes, controlled movements at train stations, checked the temperature of citizens and patrolled the communities ensuring that public gatherings would not form. But their lack of legal authority has led to severe abuses of power, with several reports of people being arbitrarily harassed by volunteers. In one instance, overzealous Wuhan enforcers tasked with rounding up infected individuals at their homes have been allegedly accused of seizing people who had not tested positive yet to place them in underserviced isolation facilities. Such extreme measures, for some reminiscent of the dark era of Maoist mass mobilisation campaigns, have attracted criticism from national officials but Xi’s vocal exhortations not to delay taking responsibility have dissuaded local officials from more cautious approaches.
Providing momentum for an extra-legal movement of mobilised volunteers and emboldening them with the legitimising narrative of the “people’s war” has created a powerful force in the hand of the party leadership to reinforce control over society. In fact, Beijing’s mobilisation has attracted a large social group under the leadership of the government: a group that now acts as a de-facto state organ whose task is to enforce compliance over the rest of the population, thereby extending the boundaries of the “state” at the expense of civil society and effectively rendering this social group a governmental proxy within society itself. In other words, the mobilisation campaign can be summed up as a cycle where the governmental narration of a “people’s war” against Covid-19 has elicited a voluntary popular response in the form of self-activation, whose outcome in the end has been to further strengthen the social power of the party.
At some point the campaign will gradually die out and finally will be fully demobilised. But the pattern of narration-mobilisation will remain as a psychological and cultural reflex in the mind of many citizens, who in the case of a future new state of emergency will be ready and willing to answer the call for self-activation according to a legitimising narrative that will be concurrently proposed by the central government. The strength of this pattern is in Beijing’s ability to address people’s concern by crafting a public narrative that allows the party to take the centre stage and call upon the population to join in first person the campaign under Beijing’s leadership. And making the Chinese people – or at least a part of it – perceive that under the aegis of the party all emergencies can be overcome is likely to have an impact on citizens’ eagerness to mobilise again in a future case of necessity, which is the kind of mark on state-society relations that is not likely to go away anytime soon.
This article is the first of a three-part series whose aim is to explore how the global Covid-19 pandemic has reshaped the relationship between authoritarian rule and civil society in China. The second article will take into account the role of regime’s surveillance technology, while the third will deal with the new possibilities for citizens’ contestation and resistance to state power.