Some analysts believe this health crisis has revived political dissent. They point to new writings by intellectuals like political activist Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar and civil rights advocate; and Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun, both of whom have criticized the government response to the outbreak and political injustice in general.
The Chinese magazine Caixin interviewed the writer known as Fang Fang, who raised concerns over the lack of honest commemoration of those who passed away during the outbreak. Others observe that some educated urban professionals have pushed back against how Beijing has handled the health crisis, concerned about the political restrictions on free information flows.
But ordinary Chinese citizens from rather different socioeconomic and educational backgrounds may see things another way — that’s what I learned from recent conversations with over a dozen workers, small business owners and retirees in Jiangsu province.
Elsewhere in China, could the outbreak actually raise satisfaction with government?
Jiangsu, a coastal province north of Shanghai, is nearly 500 miles from the covid-19 epicenter in Wuhan, Hubei province. The Jiangsu residents I spoke to were less concerned over official restrictions, but comforted by the strict quarantine measures that their local governments have taken. Though angry about the initial coverup in Wuhan, they seem satisfied with the response from the central government and their local governments.
Evidently, Jiangsu has seen far fewer coronavirus cases than Hubei, and people’s reactions of course vary. But these sentiments suggested satisfaction and pride, a reaction that indicates Beijing’s response may actually raise satisfaction with the government among some citizens.
People also cooperate with new technologies to track where citizens go
A 26-year-old Taobao online store owner in Jiangsu told me that people coming in and out of residential complexes, office buildings, grocery stores and other public places are now required to scan a QR code using their smartphones, so that local governments can monitor their movements. The data will help local officials conduct contact tracing — finding and isolating anyone who may have crossed paths with someone who is infected, to stem new infection clusters.
Such a blanket surveillance measure would be unimaginable in many other countries, but most people comply. In fact, the people I talked with think it’s a great idea because it helps the government control the spread of the virus. Along a similar line, recent research finds that the social credit system, part of the state surveillance to monitor and control citizens’ behavior, is actually popular in China.
Neighborhood committees earn a good reputation
To help implement grass-roots-level measures to fight the outbreak, neighborhood committees, the grass-roots arm of the government, play a big role in providing the institutional infrastructure to limit and monitor movement, as well as supply food and other basic needs.
Some retirees of a state-owned enterprise in Jiangsu proudly told me that during the height of the outbreak, the neighborhood committee of their residential complex knocked on every door to make sure that people had basic health and hygiene information, and to gather information about people’s movements. Neighborhood committees also helped implement smaller-scale quarantines, and supplied groceries and other necessities to people under quarantine.
This level of coordination and effectiveness earned neighborhood committees a good reputation. In Jiangsu, people felt taken care of. Local governments nationwide have promoted the importance of neighborhood committees in the coronavirus fight, including in Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Henan.
Propaganda boosts solidarity and pride
Beyond seeing what’s happening in their own neighborhoods, people in China are under constant exposure to deft propaganda. The government praises medical doctors and construction workers, compensating them well for the sacrifices they made during the coronavirus response. The lavish commendations stoke genuine emotions of solidarity, I found. Just talking about the sacrifice of China’s health-care providers, for instance, prompted one person to tear up during our conversation.
And China’s official state media produces many reports highlighting the central government’s seriousness in fighting the outbreak and its willingness to allocate billions of yuan to this effort. These send out a critical message: The government has the capacity to expend whatever resources are needed to help people get through this epidemic — and it is determined to do so.
After the outbreak escalated into a global pandemic, Chinese propaganda shifted toward a different message, depicting the Chinese government as a global leader in fighting the epidemic, earning praise from foreign scholars and governments and providing assistance to other countries such as Italy, Iran and Pakistan.
A useful analogy, perhaps, is an international sporting championship. My previous research, for instance, shows that exposure to international victories — a form of comparison with other countries — boosts political support in China. The government’s coronavirus response and the propaganda efforts, in astute comparison with other countries, would also be likely to generate political support at home.
When propaganda signals government power, it may compel the idea that the government is the ultimate authority that has both the will and the capacity to protect people and fend off the outbreak. My conversations indicate that some Chinese citizens feel relieved by the tough measures to bring the crisis under control.
Of course, measures that allow the government further control over the Chinese population, such as technological surveillance and watchful neighborhood committees, may become institutionalized. Concerns over privacy, for example, were largely subdued by the fear of the virus. But China’s ultimate success in managing the spread of the virus may actually build popular trust in the government, rather than undermining it.
Dan Chen (@profdanchen) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Richmond and the author of “Convenient Criticism: Local Media and Governance in Urban China” (SUNY Press, forthcoming).