As the editor-in-chief of China’s state-controlled tabloid “The Global Times” took to an op-ed to criticise Wuhan’s local party officials and central health authorities, international observers began to wonder whether they were confronting sophisticated propaganda aimed at laying responsibility away from the Politburo or whether the government was letting controversial material slip to blow off (some) discontent in a controlled fashion. Nothing new in the history of the most adaptive authoritarian regime in the world.
In early 2020, China’s civil society reacted to COVID-19 quite strongly, partly as a consequence of an enduring historical memory of the 2002-03 Severely Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak, as well as other public health disasters like the 2008 melamine-tainted baby formula scandal or the 2013 Nongfu bottled water standard dispute to name just a few. Contestation and civil resistance are not unheard in China, where they are traditionally identified as “mass incidents” (qúntǐ xìng shìjiàn). According to term’s use, mass incidents seldom acquire a national dimension, and vary greatly in their goals and ambitions, spanning from violent clashes for regional political autonomy to localized labour unrest.
Several of these incidents have been observed under COVID-19, both in a physical and a more intangible realm. For instance, in late March, commuters from Wuhan’s Hubei province clashed with local policemen, who refused to let them enter a neighbouring province, although mobility bans had already been revoked. Still, most discontent has relied on less “corporeal” channels, and turned to the Internet and social media in particular. Indeed, China’s civil society came as far as to question public authorities: criticism of missing information has been a feature in comments on WeChat and Weibo since January, and especially when it became clear that the government had failed to announce human-to-human transmission.
The volume of critical messages reached the point of no return when beloved doctor and whistle-blower Li Wenliang died in early February: grieving and outraged messages invaded social media, and the hashtag #IWantFreeSpeech (#要言论自由 Yào yánlùn zìyóu) attracted millions of viewers before being taken down. Meanwhile, the blog where well-known writer Fang Fang critically reflected on the emergency had become a sensation among Chinese internet users, as much that the “Wuhan diaries” are now on the verge of starting a new literary sub-genre.
In practice, it was “citizen journalists” and independent outlets like Caixin or Caijing to help raise online voices. In fact, investigations on the abysmal conditions of hospitals, shortages of protective gears and accountability of local officials offered stories that opposed one-tone national media. In addition, intellectuals published open letters denouncing the rigidity of the country’s information system, de facto promoting doctor Li’s message that “a healthy society should have more than one voice.” Famous civil activist Xu Zhiyong came to the point of asking for President Xi Jinping’s resignation, while an online petition signed by hundreds urged the National People’s Congress (China’s legislature) better to protect freedom of expression, guaranteed by the Constitution in article 35.
Although official propaganda continues to be extremely sophisticated, civil society’s pushback has been unprecedented, at least according to media professor Zhan Jiang from Beijing Foreign Studies University. In a video that circulated widely on Chinese social media, for instance, Vice-PM Sun Chunlan and local officials were shouted at as they were touring a residential complex in Wuhan. Still, criticism has been mainly directed at local party members. Analysts explain this tendency by assuming that citizens had gone after the least dangerous targets, especially as local authorities also fed in the official propaganda line and many among the most prominent critics of the central government disappeared.
In sum, the outbreak and management of the pandemic awakened Chinese civil society on at least two levels. The first was a partial loss of confidence in the government’s ability to take care of citizens. An issue the Chinese government started tackling by promoting an image of China as “global healer” through the so-called “mask diplomacy.” Although this might prove to be a simple “bump in the road,” especially in light of President Xi’s multi-vector legitimacy, cyclical health disasters may weaken state-society relations in the long run. The second was an awakening to the flaws of an authoritarian-centralised system that exchanges individual liberties with stability. Once and for all, the pandemic has shown that this model cannot always guarantee stability, casting doubts on its validity. Still, despite challenging Communist rule, criticism has remained within regime loyalty. Xu Zhangrun, professor of Constitutional Law at Tsinghua University, for instance, pointed to the weakening of collective leadership as a key issue of contemporary Chinese politics as it forced to abandon that form of check-and-balance with Chinese characteristics that had ensured the success of the system so far. Whether Xu’s notion is reflective of the popular sentiment is hard to say in a country like China where public opinion is almost impossible to survey. Still, the next challenge for the country’s government looms on the horizon: after COVID-19, in fact, China’s dozen millions jobless workers are bound to start evaluating government work, and labour unrest might rise once more.
Lastly, the main takeaway from our short-cycle on how the pandemic changed relations between China’s authoritarian regime and civil society is a pretty simple consideration. At the end of the day, it is Chinese citizens that hold the power to accept or contest central governance. Agency is not enclosed within the gates of the Forbidden City, but lies with each of the 1.4 billion Chinese citizens.
This is the third and final episode of the series on how state-society relations in China have changed because of the global Covid-19 pandemic. In the first article we discussed the role of popular mobilisation in strengthening Chinese central power, whereas in the second we dealt with the issue of how the fight against the virus is intertwined with digital authoritarianism.
 Fang Fang’s blog is now a published book, and was also translated in English.