As China emerges from the coronavirus crisis, global health officials suggest the nation has implemented a successful model to manage the pandemic. But what do people in China think about how Beijing managed the crisis?

Our research, conducted before and after the outbreak, offers some unique insights into Chinese citizens’ views of their government’s covid-19 response. Contrary to some analyses, the results are less optimistic that the state can manage national disasters and emergencies alone. Rather, Chinese citizens believe assistance from civil society organizations is needed at times of national crisis.

Chinese citizens see a role for civil society organizations

We conducted two waves of online surveys looking at civic participation. The project surveyed 1,402 urban Chinese residents in October 2018, and 4,999 people during the December 2019 to February 2020 period. This work was supported by internal university grants and conducted by Chinese survey companies.

One of our main survey questions asked, “Does the government need help from social organizations for emergency and disaster responses?” We asked people to respond using ranking options between 1 (strongly agree) to 6 (strongly disagree).

The average sentiment among respondents in the October 2018 survey round was 4.39, meaning the public generally disagreed with this statement. However, by early 2020, most respondents were in agreement (average sentiment: 1.67) suggesting they increasingly saw a role for civil society in times of crisis.

Why the dramatic shift — even before the full onset of covid-19 in China? Since Xi Jinping became China’s leader in 2013, China has made it increasingly difficult for civil society organizations to operate. Yet citizens have become increasingly active in volunteering and donating to a number of causes, such as poverty alleviation, disaster relief and disability assistance.

Citizens became frustrated by the government’s inadequacies during coronavirus

The timing of our survey serendipitously provided a new perspective on China’s covid-19 response. We collected 3,115 of the second wave sample before Jan. 20 — this was the day the Chinese government first revealed human-to-human contact could spread the coronavirus. And we collected the remaining 1,884 survey responses after that date, as the coronavirus lockdowns began.

We see a significant shift in how Chinese citizens perceived the government’s management of the coronavirus crisis, pre-Jan. 20 (average sentiment: 1.70) and after the government announcement (average sentiment: 1.62). In other words, approximately 5 percent more people indicated after the Jan. 20 date that they thought the government needed help from social organizations for emergency and disaster responses.

We suspect part of this shift stems from public outrage of the government’s missteps. For example, when hospitals in Wuhan asked for help, the government tried to control donations, funneling contributions through the government-controlled Red Cross Society. The government’s effort backfired when masks and protective gear sat in a Wuhan warehouse instead of being distributed to hospitals; and a video circulated of a Red Cross official taking the supplies for personal use. The local Red Cross society had to apologize, and donors were angry about the government’s mismanagement of urgently needed supplies.

China has a history of public health missteps

Even before the novel coronavirus, Chinese citizens were becoming wary of the Communist Party’s response to health crises. For example, China officially denied the presence of HIV in the 1980s and were slow to respond to evidence of AIDS cases or to establish treatment facilities. Poor farmers in Henan province sold their blood to government-operated blood banks without proper health and hygiene practices, leading to whole villages becoming infected. In the mid-1990s, two doctors, Wang Shuping and Gao Yaojie, exposed the Henan coverup.

During the 2003 SARS epidemic, Guangdong provincial health experts knew about an unknown viral illness as early as mid-December 2002 but did not share the news publicly until February 2003. In April 2003, the government arrested journalists and newspaper editors for spreading “rumors” and for publishing official documents related to SARS. Fearing the truth about the disease would damage foreign investors’ confidence as well as the reputation of the Guangdong government, local officials tried to stop the flow of information, despite the public health risk.

After the SARS debacle, the Chinese leadership announced new measures to develop an early warning system, albeit with mixed results. Part of this initiative sought to encourage public sharing of information on potential outbreaks. In March, the Chinese leadership, in fact, warned local leaders not to hide new covid-19 cases.

Nevertheless, the Chinese government has tried to control the narrative. Between the end of December 2019 and January 2020, the China National Health Commission sent three teams to Wuhan to collect evidence of the new atypical pneumonia. Each team was stymied by local officials seeking to present a good image of their local jurisdiction.

Ai Fen, a physician at Wuhan Central Hospital, shared the SARS-like results of her test with hospital authorities on Dec. 30, 2019, but was subsequently reprimanded for “spreading rumors” and “causing social panic.” Hospital leadership and Wuhan public officials denied the possibility of mass human-to-human transmission, as late as Jan. 12. As a result, the novel coronavirus spread quickly across the nation and globe. In this health crisis, as in the previous crises, local authorities tried to restrict information, while the government seeded doubts about the origins of the outbreak.

Looking ahead

Central to China’s governance strategy is the idea that without the Communist Party’s leadership, China would descend into chaos — and that outside expertise and leadership could undermine the legitimacy of the government. Our survey results suggest that Chinese citizens believe their government cannot successfully respond to this kind of crisis without outside assistance from civil society.

We find that citizens in China have an increasing trust and understanding of the role of civil society organizations in effective crisis response. Ironically, the Chinese government has been systematically undermining the role of these organizations over the past few years. The stories from Wuhan in lockdown, however, suggest that civil society can step in to assist with emergency needs the government cannot meet in times of crisis.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the survey response totals prior to and after Jan. 20. We regret the error.

Reza Hasmath is a professor in political science at the University of Alberta.

Timothy Hildebrandt is an associate professor of social policy and development at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Carolyn L. Hsu is a professor of sociology at Colgate University.

Jennifer Y.J. Hsu is a visiting fellow in the Social Policy Research Center at the University of New South Wales.

Jessica C. Teets is an associate professor in political science at Middlebury College.

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