Only 37 days after municipal authorities downgraded Beijing’s public health emergency response to level three, a new cluster of coronavirus cases forced China’s capital to switch back to level two on 16 June. According to the daily briefs of the National Health Commission, on 11 June, Beijing reported one indigenous case of coronavirus after two months of registering only imported cases. Two weeks later, the number of indigenous cases rose to 227 in the Beijing municipality alone, with 20 related cases in the nearby provinces of Hebei and Liaoning, and in the more distant Sichuan.
Although authorities are still investigating the outbreak, the Xinfadi market in south-west Beijing has already been identified as the centre of the epidemic. This is the largest fruit and vegetable market in the city, where 70% of the capital’s demand is met, which also sells limited quantities of fish and meat products. So as to have an idea of the market’s full extent, just consider that Xinfadi hosts 2,000 booths and 4,000 tenants, and has an average flow of 10,000 people per day. Traces of the new coronavirus were allegedly discovered on an imported-salmon seller’s chopping board, and the Chinese epidemiologists who analysed the samples found that the virus is most similar to the streaks running in northern Europe. Yet, no conclusive evidence on how the virus reached the market has been presented so far.
In addition to raising the level of public health emergency, authorities put in place “wartime” responses. Xinfadi has been closed since 12 June and 11 residential compounds were placed under strict lockdown: a video released on Twitter by the account of the Global Times (China’s national English language newspaper) also shows that paramilitary police started to monitor the area. As the outbreak has now come to affect 9 districts and 28 neighbourhoods (27 of which are listed as medium-risk), 193 sampling booths were installed around the city and mass testing has been going on since 13 June at a rate of roughly 500,000 people per day. Nucleic acid amplification tests have been preferred, as they had proven most effective in detecting early-stage infections.
This approach thus shows an attentive leadership, overreactive to the possibility of a second wave of coronavirus cases, which would jeopardise the country’s recovery. After all, up until last week, Beijing was considered one of the safest cities in China, epidemic-wise. At the height of the contagion, in fact, the capital had not registered numbers as high as other major cities. On 13 February, when the World Health Organization indicated China’s peak, Beijing had experienced only 366 cases in total.
The fact that authorities intensified responses in the capital is somewhat intuitive: other than being the second most populated city in China, Beijing is the country’s political nervous system. In the past few weeks, in fact, major political events unfolded in the city—from the long-delayed “Two Sessions” to the meeting of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.
It is always interesting to notice how Beijing’s example can be used as a small-scale model for understanding how the country’s governance works. Indeed, looking at how the current outbreak is being handled in the city is indicative of how the country has refined its public health emergency response. Among all that was written on China’s epidemic governance, a word in particular should be spent on the role played by Vice Premier Sun Chunlan (孙春兰). The sole woman in the Politburo, hers was among the earliest-heard political voices on the Beijing outbreak. During a 14-June-meeting of the State Council, in fact, Sun “warned of the high risk of virus spreading and asked for resolute response measures.”
Despite belonging to the most-at-risk segment of the population, seventy-years-old Vice-Premier Sun has been on the frontline of the “people’s war against the coronavirus pandemic” since late January, travelling to the Hubei province more than twenty times, and making more than fifty remarks, according to her webpage on the State Council’s official website. Together with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, she has been the one to watch during the outbreak. Vice Premier Sun follows in the footsteps of Vice Premier Wu Yi (吴仪) – China’s Iron Lady (中国铁娘子) – who had been the face of the fight against the Severely Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002-03.
Close to former President Hu Jintao and member of his Communist Youth League faction (团派), Vice Premier Sun’s constant media appearances and re-assuring tones have been an asset to central authorities, as she reinforced the narrative of a secure yet supportive state, which is being constructed by the authorities. As the coronavirus spreads in Beijing, Vice Premier Sun remains a central figure for the leadership. Indeed, a second wave of infections can only be avoided with the cooperation of the Chinese people and Vice Premier Sun has the ability to shape public opinion more than any other politician.