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Chinese ‘Coronationalism’: a public health and ideological battle. A tale of two universes?

Written by: Lucas Zhao

As Covid-19 marches stridently into its third year, various strands of ‘coronationalism’ have flourished. Nothing is more glaring than the nationalism that has evolved in China, entailing a widespread national pride, in the emergency management by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), at home and abroad.

Nationalism is no stranger to crisis. It is a golden opportunity for authoritarian regimes to rally support and harden psychological resolve. The crisis plays well into what the CCP has always set out to achieve: winning the Chinese hearts and minds while signaling its strength overseas. The legitimacy of the CCP is traditionally built around its hard power and economy, but it is increasingly reliant on soft power.

The relatively upbeat economy, bourgeoning domestic consumption, low deaths, combined with the ‘safest place’ at the Beijing Winter Olympic Games (infection rate at 0.01%, versus Tokyo logging above 5000 cases daily during the Summer Olympic Games), validate the government’s approach. China is the only remaining country still pursuing a ‘zero-covid-19’ policy.

As compared to the slow-paced nd half-hearted initial response in the UK and US, China’s responses received applause. In Ground Zero, quick construction of a pop-up Huoshenshan hospital in ten days served well in propaganda, as media praised overworked constructors and medics, but also saved lives.

While the lockdown of Wuhan shocked the West, which criticized China for authoritarianism and overreaction, lockdown has since become a global phenomenon. England has practiced it three times, in a period of 15 months. Some form of restriction remains in all parts of the world. This reversal in attitude towards the hardline policy and coping of China’s unprecedented approach has been interpreted as a vindication of Chinese responses, in turn solidifying CCP’s agile, decisive, and proactive image in crisis.

Chinese management of the pandemic, in comparison to most of the West, lends further credit to its successful social model. As the US is 50,000 deaths shy of crossing past a million, China has recorded fewer than 4,700 causalities, with only 124 outside of Hubei. Such a stark contrast offers justification for CCP’s draconian and extreme measures that many have been convinced by.

By official estimates, China’s strategy has averted 1million deaths and 50million illnesses. The deep belief that every life counts resonates with most Chinese, who deem the colossal loss of lives in western countries as a sign of poor governance and prioritization of economy over humans.

Since Xi Jinping assumed leadership, he has recognized the appeal of galvanizing support via social media. State propaganda and strict censorship ensure that dissenting and liberal voices are always silenced, while nationalist messages and party achievements are amplified.

Most Western social media platforms remain out of bounds while news outlets can be blocked by the Great Firewall without warning.  

On WeChat, Chinese users do not discuss anything contentious in ‘private’ chats with friends abroad fearing that their conversations are being eavesdropped.

The heavily censored Weibo has a team of 200 moderators who frequently take down inappropriate comments, posts that contain sensitive words and suspicious accounts. Peng Shuai’s post accusing Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault in November was taken down within minutes. Even so, in 2021, Weibo was fined 45 times, totaling $2.67million, for not censoring adequately.

Against this backdrop of censorship, any criticism of China’s handling of Covid-19 is thus framed as siding with the West, agreeing with their styles of life and governance, and denouncing the CCP’s effort.

Fang Fang, who documented her life in Wuhan at the onset of the pandemic on Weibo, received widespread support at first for speaking up on the fumbled response. However, as the virus started spreading globally and accusations started to be hurled at China, she received threats. Similar critics have been either censored, harassed and smeared online and in real life, with some losing jobs.

Despite general endorsement of the mRNA vaccines, China has insisted on the century-old inactivation method. If 87.1% of the Chinese have no choice but to use the only vaccines they have, those overseas have options. Many still voluntarily choose Sinovac-CoronaVac and Sinopharm, businesses owned by the states.

In Singapore, when the Chinese vaccines were not officially approved but could be taken at private clinics at a cost, the demand was overwhelming. By the end of 2021, more than 70,000 people have received two doses. The majority are taken up by Chinese nationals, citing ‘strong personal preferences’, who firmly believe their home country’s vaccines are safer albeit less effective.

In Singapore’s exodus of foreigners, foremost are Chinese nationals who disapprove of People Action Party’s ‘fo xi’ attitude, characterized by general indifference (no mass testing and complete lockdown), outbreaks in migrant worker dormitories, and commitment to opening (Vaccinated Travel Lanes from 29 regions). Many feel safer to be back in China where any localized flare ups induce testing and locking the entire infected region.

The situation is not unique to Asia. Chinese from London to New York City have flocked back home in the summer of 2021 to take the Chinese vaccines, although some mix them with Western shots. Many students and workers have not returned.

In ‘pharma nationalism’ and ‘vaccine diplomacy’, the Chinese shots are the world’s most donated and delivered, supplementing its pride and political clout in the Belt and Road Initiative. Totaling half of the global injections, Sinopharm, Sinovac, Anhui Zhifei Longcom and Cansino exports have combined 1.39billion doses, reaching 115 countries.

China is a major vaccine supplier to Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, UAE, and Seychelles, in addition to 20 Latin American countries and 46 in Africa. Yet, these countries have had the worst recent outbreaks as the vaccines provide zero shield against Omicron, casting doubt on Chinese triumphalist claims.

Ironically, even though China has rejected Western vaccines on grounds of the mRNA technology, it has approved the Pfizer Inc.’s pill, Paxlovid in February 2022, and is testing its own mRNA vaccine, ARCoVax, in an international Phase III clinical trial. So far, lab results show a ‘low but detectable’ neutralization activity against Omicron.

The rhetoric of self-sufficiency in the go-it-alone approach is increasingly challenged as flare ups become more frequent because the Chinese are not immune. Disapproving foreign vaccines is hardly determined by health considerations; it is politically motivated as China is bent on jostling with the US for supremacy in science and technology.

Chinese Coronationalism is not surprising.

A century of humiliation from the Opium Wars, the unequal treaties, the surrender of Hong Kong, the defeat in the Sino-Japanese war, and Japanese invasion of Manchuria still conjure up resentment. Nationalist feelings are easily stirred along these lines as China constantly portrays itself as a victim seeking to wipe out the humiliation.

Therefore, any Western portrayal of China as totalitarian can be easily twisted by CCP as discrediting China. Any attack on a phenomenon or incident in China is not just an attack on the state, the leaders, or policy; it is a personal attack, on the lifestyle and cosmos of Chinese, deeply hurting their feelings.

As most Chinese are oblivious to Xinjiang and Tibet’s concentration camps and reeducation programs, they deem Western criticism of CCP as exaggerated, driven by jealousy and fear. Yet in China, tangible progress in economy and standard of living have convinced the Chinese that the CCP is harbinger of peace and prosperity.

As the Chinese have personally benefited from lower risk of infection, death numbers and relative freedom, any external criticism needs no further twisting to be construed as untrue and hostile. Therefore, all accusations regarding the virus are seen as a recurring trope to pick on China for its record of ‘internal affairs’.

Despite overwhelming evidence pointing towards Wuhan as the source, many Chinese still believe that it is far from conclusive. China insists that the origin of the pandemic has been politicized and regards the lab leak theory as uninformed and unscientific.

Today, China exists in an alternate universe from the rest of the world, having hosted the Beijing Winter Olympics without spectators, and defending ‘zero-covid-19’ without flinching.

Yet, the cost has been tremendous. The economy is feeling the pain as lockdowns, disruptions in supply chains and ports take their toll. Even though exports set a record in 2021, when shipments increased by 32%, Bank of China cut interest rate by 5 to 10 % in January after the economy had its worst quarter since 2019.

Ominously, a report from the Eurasia Group cautions that the failure of China’s ‘zero-covid-19’ strategy would be 2022’s top political risk. The approach, abandoned by New Zealand, Singapore, and Australia, becomes increasingly untenable with the highly transmissible Omicron.

The Chinese understand the need for lockdowns more than anyone, but repeated lockdowns do not sit well with most people who have been become increasingly exhausted after more than two years of harsh testing measures and stay-at-home policies.

Yet, not until the 20th Party Congress in October will China waver in its stance on ‘zero-covid-19’. The cadre system will not tolerate any mistakes before the reelection of Xi for an unprecedented third term. Until then, China will stay shut from the rest of the world, albeit quite willingly and happily.

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