Making the great leap forward: When will the Chinese person stand up?

Mao said that “the Chinese people have stood up” when he proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Lance Gore from the East Asian Institute says, more than 70 years later, if a Chinese person cannot speak his mind without fear of recrimination, one can hardly profess that the Chinese people have truly stood up.
Chinese students hold a memorial for Dr Li Wenliang outside the UCLA campus in Westwood, California, on 15 February 2020. In the photo, the student has the words "freedom of speech" written on the duct tape over his mouth. (Mark Ralston/AFP)
Chinese students hold a memorial for Dr Li Wenliang outside the UCLA campus in Westwood, California, on 15 February 2020. In the photo, the student has the words "freedom of speech" written on the duct tape over his mouth. (Mark Ralston/AFP)

Amid the global spread of the coronavirus, the speed and agility with which the Chinese Communist Party has mobilised the Chinese people and implemented containment measures stand in stark contrast with the missteps made by some countries (including developed and democratic ones).

In the coming months, we will likely see the outbreak escalating around the world, while China returns to a relatively stable state of calm. State propaganda machines will then begin singing praises of China’s governance system and governing capabilities while whitewashing incompetence and glossing over issues, just like it did in many cases in history. The real lessons to be learnt will once again be swept aside.

In all honesty, the 2003 SARS epidemic and the current Covid-19 pandemic that is of a much larger scale and has incurred far greater losses are actually two failures of the same kind. During both crises, Chinese officials had initially covered up the facts and downplayed the situation. These actions cost the country much-needed lead time in containing the outbreak, which subsequently led to the need for national mobilisation. The political environment during SARS was relatively lax and officials were able to openly voice their opinions and reveal the truth to foreign media. Control is much tighter now; no one dares to say a word.

Chinese students and their supporters hold a memorial for Dr Li Wenliang outside the UCLA campus in Westwood, California, on 15 February 2020. (Mark Ralston/AFP)
Chinese students and their supporters hold a memorial for Dr Li Wenliang outside the UCLA campus in Westwood, California, on 15 February 2020. (Mark Ralston/AFP)

Whistleblowers like Li Wenliang and seven other doctors were deemed “heroes”, but in truth, there was nothing “heroic” about their actions. They had merely warned their friends and family to take care of themselves, but their messages were leaked and they were punished by the officials as a result. The legacy of SARS includes an infectious diseases direct reporting system that cost the country a few billion dollars to put in place. Yet, this system hardly came into play in the fight against the coronavirus. Layers of red tape got in the way of policymaking, leading to a halt in work and production for at least four months. Moreover, a substantial number of lives were lost, and as the disease spread globally, countries declared states of emergencies and started imposing unprecedented lockdowns.        

From Chinese people standing up to the Chinese person standing up 

As soon as the situation started to ease a little, the Wuhan government began requesting for gratitude from the people of Wuhan. Such thinking and behaviour hinder the true rise of China. The Covid-19 outbreak demonstrates that China urgently needs to make a great leap forward from Chinese people standing up to the Chinese person standing up.

Unless each Chinese person has stood up, the Chinese people have not truly stood up, and neither has China risen or achieved national rejuvenation.

When modern China was established in 1949, founding father Mao Zedong declared to the world: “The Chinese people have stood up!” That declaration announced the arriving of a new epoch. From that day on, China gained independence and embarked on the journey towards gradual industrialisation, its rise as a great power, national rejuvenation, and affluence. However, the concepts of country, nationhood, people and persons are different.The standing up of Chinese people does not equate to the standing up of the Chinese person.

China has always emphasised sacrificing personal interests for the larger interests of the country, nation, and its people. While this is not wrong, it is lopsided. Unless each Chinese person has stood up, the Chinese people have not truly stood up, and neither has China risen or achieved national rejuvenation. The benefits of liberating the people, being a powerful country, and national rejuvenation have to be enjoyed by each Chinese person. Otherwise, these efforts are meaningless.

These rights seem basic, but they are often suppressed in the name of safeguarding the interests of the country, the nation, the people, and even the political party. This situation is clearly seen in the current Covid-19 pandemic.     

People wearing face masks walk along a street in Yueyang, Hunan province on 3 March 2020. (Noel Celis/AFP)
People wearing face masks walk along a street in Yueyang, Hunan province on 3 March 2020. (Noel Celis/AFP)

The standing up of a Chinese person simply refers to the ability to live like a normal person — to enjoy basic rights and security, to have common sense and speak the truth, to possess a clear conscience, and to become a responsible citizen who contributes to society. These rights seem basic, but they are often suppressed in the name of safeguarding the interests of the country, the nation, the people, and even the political party. This situation is clearly seen in the current Covid-19 pandemic.     

Standing up during the Covid-19 pandemic

Over the past few days, an article revealing details of the Covid-19 outbreak in the initial stages has been snuffed out and revived in turns by officials and netizens. The article reports that on 30 December 2019, the director of the Central Hospital of Wuhan’s emergency department received a virus test report that “sent shivers down her spine”. She immediately reported it to the hospital’s public health and infection management departments. Coincidentally, a colleague asked about the situation in the department, and she sent over a screenshot of the report with the words “SARS coronavirus” circled in red. That night, the screenshot circulated among doctors in Wuhan, including the eight doctors who were punished by Wuhan police — among which was late Dr Li Wenliang.

This department director was also summoned by the hospital’s party secretary and faced an “unprecedented, extremely harsh reprimand”, which claimed that she “spread rumours as a professional” and was a “sinner” who destroyed the positive outlook of the city of Wuhan. They demanded her to keep quiet, and to “tell no one, including her husband”. The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission then sent the hospital a warning that anyone who spread rumours that would trigger public panic will be held accountable.

Aggrieved, this department director later said in her interview with a reporter, “I saw the report and I reported it to the hospital. My classmate and I were merely exchanging our thoughts on a certain patient as doctors. We didn’t disclose any of the patient’s identifiers and merely engaged in a discussion of a case. As a clinical doctor, when I got to know that a significant virus has been discovered in a patient, how can I keep it to myself when another doctor asks about it? This is instinctive, isn’t it? What did I do wrong? I did something that any doctor or normal person would have done. I believe anybody else would have done the same.”

Ai Fen, director of the Central Hospital of Wuhan's emergency department. (Weibo)
Ai Fen, director of the Central Hospital of Wuhan’s emergency department. (Weibo)

Yet, under the Chinese system, she was unable to be a normal person. She was under immense pressure and even thought about the possibility of landing in jail. She immediately told her husband what happened that same night and said to him, “If anything happens to me, take good care of our children.” Her younger son was only a little over a year old.

Between 11 and 16 January when Hubei conducted its lianghui (两会, annual meetings of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference), the daily update of the coronavirus was suspended.

A night prior to Wuhan’s lockdown on 23 January, a friend of hers who works at a government body telephoned her, asking about the situation of patients at the emergency ward. She first asked if her friend was asking the question privately, or as a governmental representative — if it was the former, she would tell the truth; if it was the latter, she would give a polished, politically correct answer. The situation was already very serious then — the emergency department received a total of 1523 patients on 21 January, three times the usual number. Of these 1523 patients, 655 were running a fever.

Let us recall the official response given then. On 6 January before the outbreak took a turn for the worse, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) declared a level 2 health warning before adjusting it to level 1 a week later. However, as the CCDC did not have executive power, the warning only applied to its internal staff. Between 11 and 16 January when Hubei conducted its lianghui (两会, annual meetings of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference), the daily update of the coronavirus was suspended. Following the resumption of daily reports on 17 January, the number of cases had not increased but showed a downward trend. The official line was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” and that Covid-19 was “preventable and controllable”. However, a member of the expert team that Beijing had sent to Wuhan was infected when he returned home.

If the whole of Wuhan had gone into a level 2 health warning mode on 6 January, the world could probably have avoided a massive calamity.

To create a celebratory and festive atmosphere, Wuhan did not cancel its wan jia yan (万家宴, banquet for thousands of households) or its large cultural gatherings. At one point, the local government even considered issuing travel vouchers to encourage people to visit the Yellow Crane Tower (黄鹤楼) tourist attraction. Unaware of the situation, hundreds of thousands of people continued to gather at crowded places and travelled freely around the country. It was not until a lockdown was imposed on 23 January that the people realised the severity of the issue. If the whole of Wuhan had gone into a level 2 health warning mode on 6 January, the world could probably have avoided a massive calamity.

This aerial photo taken on 10 March 2020 shows an empty street in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province. (STR/AFP)
This aerial photo taken on 10 March 2020 shows an empty street in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province. (STR/AFP)

70 years after Chinese people have stood up, the Chinese person remains oppressed and lives life half-kneeling as law and order has not given them adequate protection to live like a responsible normal person with a conscience.

According to the report that was deleted from the internet but resurrected by netizens by way of screenshots, PDF documents, and even garbled text and morse code, after Wuhan’s lockdown, “nobody talked” in the hospital shrouded by death and “everyone only mourned and discussed matters privately”.

The aforementioned situation illuminates a few points. Firstly, the Chinese, including highly-educated professionals, do not feel that their basic rights are protected. Even doing things that normal people would do elicits the fear of punishment and the prospect of going to jail and leaving their children behind. 70 years after Chinese people have stood up, the Chinese person remains oppressed and lives life half-kneeling as law and order has not given them adequate protection to live like a responsible normal person with a conscience.

Years of reform may have seemingly established modern rules and regulations, but the way they are operationalised remains outdated and even feudal, as they revolved around power, not rationality.

Secondly, politics has overpowered and overridden science, law, reason, and common sense. In a world controlled by politics, a professional evaluation easily becomes a “rumour”, and people can only speak the truth privately — never to official bodies.

Thirdly, China’s governance system and governing capabilities are far from being modernised as the system revolves around illusory “political correctness” rather than science and efficiency. Years of reform may have seemingly established modern rules and regulations, but the way they are operationalised remains outdated and even feudal, as they revolved around power, not rationality. The various levels of officials lack necessary autonomy to exercise discretion and are either passive, or pretend to be active by busying themselves with bureaucratic red tape, prioritising form over substance. They do not seek to accomplish things, but work to please their superiors. Their common sense has become distorted by power and authority.

In comparison, the seemingly “zen” approach of handling the outbreak in countries like Japan and Singapore is proving effective without having to close businesses, lock down cities, and cause massive losses to its economy. Their achievements rely on reason, professional knowledge, and their people’s common sense and voluntary action — not political mobilisation. Rational, dignified, self-aware, and socially responsible citizens cannot emerge from a tightly controlled system. Yet, without citizens with such qualities, a tightly controlled system has to be put in place, resulting in a vicious cycle.

Mask-clad commuters make their way to work during the morning rush hour at the Shinagawa train station in Tokyo on 28 February 2020. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)
Mask-clad commuters make their way to work during the morning rush hour at the Shinagawa train station in Tokyo on 28 February 2020. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)

Mao Zedong expressed his political ideal in his speech, Serve the People: “If we have shortcomings, we are not afraid to have them pointed out and criticised, because we serve the people. Anyone, no matter who, may point out our shortcomings. If he is right, we will correct them. If what he proposes will benefit the people, we will act upon it.” Yet what we see today is that a unified and centralised political system often deems differing opinions as a sign of disloyalty or disregard for the higher-ups.

Otherwise, as long as the Chinese individuals are still oppressed, the nation will never truly rise, and neither will China truly become a global power that leads the way and commands respect.

A key obstacle to Mao’s ideology being realised lies in China’s massive system of bureaucracy that focuses too much on top-level officials, giving lower-tiered officials no say in their roles and leaving itself inept in protecting the basic rights of the people. The system remains mired in bureaucracy and corruption, with officials focusing on form rather than substance. Mao had attempted to destroy such a system through the Cultural Revolution and establish a new system that was more dynamic and beneficial to its people. However, he failed. The centralisation of power in recent years has instead further entrenched the system. Under this system, how the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has unfolded is to be expected.

China’s modernisation of its governance system and governing capabilities is dependent on common sense, reason, science and efficiency — not the thoughts or actions of a single top-level decision maker. Policies need to be reasonable, legitimate, and serve the people and the country — one should not feel their lives are at risk just because they have spoken the truth. The authorities need to safeguard the basic rights of people who speak and act honestly. This means allowing everyone in the system to speak truths and not lies. This means making a historical leap from Chinese people standing up to each Chinese person standing up.

Only when each Chinese person stands up will China’s governance system and governing capabilities have the foundation for modernisation. Otherwise, as long as the Chinese individuals are still oppressed, the nation will never truly rise, and neither will China truly become a global power that leads the way and commands respect.

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