China’s response to the recent coronavirus outbreak has been heavily scrutinised in terms of whether it has been effective or not. But most analyses have overlooked the broader impact that the evolving response to virus might have for the way government works in China. The introduction of extraordinary government powers, backed up by advanced surveillance technology, could give the state new levels of power and control on a long-term basis.
To effectively contain the coronavirus outbreak from its onset, China’s political elite needed to publicly establish how the virus threatened the security of society. This process of making something (a health problem, for example) into a security issue when it wouldn’t normally be considered one is known in political science as “securitisation.
Securitisation typically involves informing and educating the public about the issue (which is crucial during a highly infectious disease outbreak) but also alarming them over the nature and seriousness of the threat. It can also legitimise a new form of politics that often involves the state taking on "temporary” extraordinary powers.
In the case of China’s initial response to the coronavirus outbreak, instead of committing to curb the virus’s spread from the start, the authorities prioritised containing the spread of any information relevant to the outbreak. As a result, the Chinese public were initially largely unaware of the severity of the virus.
Once the issue became too large to suppress, China eventually began to securitise the outbreak, resulting in some extraordinary policy decisions such as quarantining several cities in Hubei province. But the government also continued to quarantine any public debate over the epidemic.
The most famous example was that of the whistle-blowing doctor, Li Wenliang. Li was one of the first to try and alert the public to the seriousness of the outbreak. But for his efforts, Li was summoned by local police and forced to cease his activities.
Sadly, Li later died after contracting the virus. The anger at his death led some commentators to suggest that China might experience a “Chernobyl moment”, in which the state’s legitimacy would be stripped away, resulting in it losing some power and control.
Securitisation works in part by giving political elites the popular legitimacy to tackle an issue swiftly and powerfully. But China’s initial response – suppressing important information and harassing whistle-blowers – had the opposite effect, hurting the legitimacy of the government.
However, unlike the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine, which led to significant soul searching among the Soviet Union’s elites, the Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has so far gone the other way. They have arguably “hyper-securitised” the threat as a way of not only more swiftly addressing the threat of the virus, but also as a way of regaining some of the legitimacy that was lost by those initial missteps.
So rather than downplaying the seriousness of the issue, the authorities have now started building the virus up as an unprecedented threat for China, one which can only be solved by an extraordinary form of politics. As President Xi Jinping recently said in an online address to 170,000 party and military officials:
this is a crisis and it is also a major test … the effectiveness of the prevention and control work has once again showed the significant advantages of the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics.
Not surprisingly, after the initial missteps, China has been extremely dynamic in implementing emergency measures. In Hubei, the government has used the army to guarantee the proper implementation of quarantine measures while transferring medics from other provinces to assist the local manpower. The state has also organised the construction of two new hospitals in Wuhan in just a few weeks.
But accompanying these emergency measures has been newer forms of power and control. Most notably, China has been using high-tech measures such as drones, facial recognition cameras, and artificial intelligence to more closely monitor its citizens, all in the name of combating the virus.
With the flick of a few switches, the Chinese state has been able to gather data on practically every person in the country. The government knows exactly where everyone is, what their daily public routine is and even the temperature of their bodies. Punishments are handed out if people break the rules.
This represents an unprecedented level of surveillance and exertion of power and control. But, given the seriousness of the purported threat of the coronavirus outbreak, these measures have been acknowledged and endorsed by international researchers.
Whether or not these measures have been effective in addressing the coronavirus outbreak, the political implications for China could be long-lasting. That is the slippery slope of a state successfully securitising an issue, because the more salient the existential threat presented, the more power and control the state can justify using in response.
The question now is what will China do with its new forms of power and control once the threat is overcome? Other examples of securitisation suggests the remnants of a successful securitisation can linger in a state’s governance model. For instance, the expansion of the United States government’s surveillance powers and scope of several criminal laws the lasted for more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks’ securitisation.
But, in the case of the coronavirus, this is not just a question for China. The effects of hyper-securitising this outbreak could be felt globally. The initial mismanagement by the Chinese state transformed the outbreak from a local to a global issue and now other countries across the globe are similarly facing pressing questions about to how best respond to the threat. The irony is that many are considering the virtues of the China model.