The coronavirus outbreak in China began as a public health crisis but is fast escalating into a political one. On 7 February, Dr Li Wenliang, who was reprimanded by the police for warning others to protect themselves from the virus, died after contracting the virus himself. His death triggered an outpouring of anger and grief among Chinese netizens, unlike anything I have ever seen.
Even prior to the epidemic, Chinese leadership was already stretched thin by a slowing economy, rising tensions with the US, and a swine flu that killed one third of the country’s hogs.
Yet some believe this is only a temporary emergency. As The Economist opined, “China’s rulers see the coronavirus as a chance to tighten their grip.” Likewise, Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, declared in an op-ed for Project Syndicate, “What is certain, however, is that the crisis, once resolved, will not change how China is governed in the future.” Indeed, in 2003, China survived the outbreak of SARS. It silenced whistleblowers back then, but this did not scar the regime’s legitimacy for long.
This time, though, the political fallout of the coronavirus is more serious than that of SARS for four reasons. First, the political-economic environment today is different from 2003. Even prior to the epidemic, Chinese leadership was already stretched thin by a slowing economy, rising tensions with the US, and a swine flu that killed one third of the country’s hogs. The spread of coronavirus, exacerbated by government cover-ups and mismanagement, threatens to strain the leadership to a near breaking point.
Second, Dr Li’s death has made him a martyr, a figure around whom citizens can rightfully express their grievances. On 30 December, Li posted a message on an online chat group that pointed to the emergence of a SARS-like virus and warned fellow medics to wear protective gear. Four days later, he was summoned by the police and forced to sign a statement promising not to “spread rumours” and “disrupt social order”. The state media named and shamed him as a rumour-monger. In hindsight, netizens now know that the government’s denial might have prevented decisive precautionary measures from being taken early on, which would have limited the virus’ spread.
Third, whereas social media was a novelty during SARS, today it is widely used. In China, between 2003 and 2017, the number of internet users grew from only 6% of the population to 54%. Despite censorship, news and posts spread fast. Millions of readers saw Dr Li’s interview with Caixin, in which he said: “A healthy society should not have only one voice.” The hashtag #deathofLiWenliang# garnered 540 million views on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) before censors scrubbed it out. Another hashtag #Iwantfreedomofspeech# drew more than 8,000 posts.
What makes Dr Li’s tragic death and parting words especially potent, ironically, is that he was not an activist, and nor did he set out to make a political statement. All he tried to do was save lives, including his own. Dr Li not only exposed the flaws of a command-and-control system, but also showed Chinese citizens that the stifling of dissenting voices could precipitate a national disaster that ultimately affects everyone.
If this epidemic continues and undermines political stability in China, it will have wider and longer-term consequences for Singapore, which is especially vulnerable to external shocks and highly dependent on the Chinese economy.
Fourth, the coronavirus is more difficult to detect and contain than SARS. Some individuals may be infected by the coronavirus but display no symptoms, which means the sickness can spread to more people, as seen in a recent case involving a British national who caught the coronavirus in Singapore and went on to infect at least 11 people. This makes the challenge of keeping the outbreak in check all the more daunting.
Once these realities are taken into account, it becomes clear that the health and political threats posed by the coronavirus outbreak is far more serious than SARS. If this epidemic continues and undermines political stability in China, it will have wider and longer-term consequences for Singapore, which is especially vulnerable to external shocks and highly dependent on the Chinese economy.
Even if the Chinese leadership remains intact after this crisis, ordinary Chinese people would have learned an indelible lesson: having only one voice in society can hurt public welfare. This reminder gives everyone a personal stake in democracy. Going forward, it will be difficult for Xi to justify the argument that top-down, centralised control works.