After the Chinese government cracked down on the pro-democracy movement in 1989, the Chinese people in effect signed a social contract with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Nothing was officially written down, but the terms have been well understood: The people would accept limited rights and freedom in exchange for the prosperity and stability the CCP promised to provide.
For several decades, the social contract has seemed to work well for both sides. China’s GDP per capita rose from $310 in 1989 to $16,186 in 2018. Many Chinese cities have been transformed from economic backwaters to commercial and industrial centers with lots of shining skyscrapers and large neon signs rivaling New York City’s Times Square. Western corporations have been bending over backwards, willingly giving up their technology and imposing unabashed self-censorship in order to gain access to Chinese consumers. Chinese tourists have been welcomed everywhere because of their deep pockets and seemingly insatiable taste for luxury goods.
Chinese people are not only getting richer, they are confident in the vision that China’s leader, Xi Jinping, presented to them — the “China Dream,” which proclaims that China’s rise is unstoppable and it is destined to return to its former glory as the most powerful nation under the sun. Sure, there are some “inconveniences” of life in China here and there: being constantly watched by a mass-surveillance system, being instructed on how to behave by an intrusive “social credit” system, the increasing censorship and inability to access popular sites such as Facebook and Twitter due to the “Great China Firewall,” and the heightened crackdown on religious believers and political dissenters. Yet the majority of Chinese people have raised no objection to the CCP’s authoritarian rule and have simply accepted these “inconveniences” as a necessary price to pay for stability and prosperity.
Then came the news of the coronavirus outbreak. There was no lack of effort on the Chinese government’s part to cover it up from the beginning. Chinese authorities waited a full month before informing the World Health Organization and waited until late January to notify the Chinese public. In the meantime, the authorities arrested whistleblowers, warned doctors and nurses to keep their mouth shut, kept the infected number artificially low, and sent an army of censors to scrub the internet clean from coronavirus related images, discussions and messages. Still, the outbreak is not something the Chinese government can easily censor away. It took place right in the heartland of the country, at a time when the majority of the 1.4 billion Chinese were on a long break and supposed to celebrate the nation’s most important holiday with their families and relatives.
The virus has claimed over 720 lives and infected over 35,000 people worldwide, with the vast majority in China. Even though the Chinese government took draconian steps to lock down 60 million people — including Wuhan, a city of 11 million residents and the epicenter of the outbreak —the virus has spread to all corners of China. Unlike the imprisonment of the Uyghurs or Christians, this outbreak hits close to home. Everyone is impacted in one way or another. China is known as the factory of the world, but it is now struggling to provide a sufficient number of face masks. China’s biotech industry has had double-digit growth in the last two decades, yet there is a shortage of coronavirus testing kits. The government-run healthcare system is overwhelmed by patients and people who want to get tested. It often ends up turning away sick patients who should be treated and quarantined. Social media now is full of images of desperate Chinese people asking for outside help, such as this. Here is a heartbreaking video of a mother who was begging guards to let her and her leukemia-stricken daughter pass so they could go to a different hospital for her daughter’s treatment.
While the Chinese government seems unable to handle the virus effectively, it doesn’t hesitate to deploy some of the cruelest measures imaginable to undermine human lives in the name of fighting the virus. The New York Times reports that last Thursday, Wuhan authorities started “house-to-house searches, rounding up the sick and warehousing them in enormous quarantine centers.” Such mass quarantine centers are not a good idea. Given the shortage of doctors and nurses and lack of a cure, people are naturally afraid that they will be left to survive or die inside those centers on their own. No one wants to go to these centers. There are videos of people being forcibly dragged out of their homes. There are also images of local authorities sealing doors to either individual apartments or even an entire building when they believe at least one person inside was infected by the virus. The lack of concern for human lives and dignity is beyond appalling.
In cities that have been on lockdown, life for those who aren’t sick with the coronavirus isn’t easy either. Prices in supermarkets have skyrocketed. All public transportation has stopped. Many elderly or disabled are left to fend for themselves. A 17-year-old boy with cerebral palsy in Hubei province died from a lack of care after his caregivers were quarantined. People are starting to feel a sense of desperation. They want to know what kind of world power China really is if it is unable to take care of its own people against a flu-like virus. One Chinese user posted: “After reading the story, can you still brag China is strong?” In this other video, an outraged woman who didn’t even bother to hide her face blasted her anger at the CCP: “You have promised us prosperity by 2020. All we got is the loss of our family! You are living the high life while we are dying!”
Internationally, several countries cut flights to and from China. Chinese visitors, tourists and even investors suddenly feel they are not welcome anymore. China hasn’t been this isolated since its self-imposed isolation in the 18th century. Then the Chinese people learned that all their misery could have been prevented had Chinese authorities listened to whistleblowers who warned about the virus as early as December 30, 2019. Instead, the whistleblowers were reprimanded for “spreading rumors” and were warned to shut up or face criminal charges. One of whistleblowers, Dr. Li Wenliang, was reprimanded by Wuhan authorities for “spreading rumors” after trying to warn his friends about the virus in December 2019. He was hospitalized starting January 12 after unknowingly treating a patient who was infected by the coronavirus. Strangely, Dr. Li wasn’t confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus until February 1. During this period, China insisted that no medical professional had been infected and the coronavirus wouldn’t transmit from human to human. Dr. Li’s delayed diagnosis might have delayed his treatment. He passed away on February 6 at the young age of 34. To many Chinese, Dr. Li paid the ultimate price for speaking truth in China.
Dr. Li’s death unleashed the Chinese people’s pent-up anger and frustration toward the Chinese government. They are fed up with the government’s cover-ups, lies, and inability to do anything effective. They see the Communist Party leaders’ singular focus on maintaining control and stability at all costs, even if it means sacrificing human lives, as deeply troubling.
A national soul-searching has begun. The number of online posts and the directness of how people express their grief, anger, and frustration are unprecedented. The hashtag #wewantfreedomofspeech# went up on China’s most popular messaging site, Weibo, on Friday morning. It survived for five hours, with two million views and over 5,500 shares before it was scrubbed by censors. People also posted videos of the Les Misérables song “Do You Hear the People Sing” and the text of China’s Constitution, which stipulates freedom of speech. But more people, probably unafraid of censorship for the first time in their lives, posted comments such as, “It’s time to reflect on the deeply-rooted, stability-trumps-everything thinking that’s hurt everyone.” Such comments indicate that the Chinese people have started rethinking the social contract they had agreed to — exchanging freedom for stability and prosperity. The coronavirus outbreak shattered the façade of stability and forced many to realize that trading away one’s freedom is never a good deal.
The Chinese government has gone into overdrive to contain people’s outrage. We don’t know if the Chinese people’s outrage will result in any meaningful change in China. But what happens in China always has implications elsewhere. When you trade your freedom for stability, you will end up with neither.