"Governments in East Asia are more experienced in handling a crisis"

The lockdown of Hubei province in China has been mostly lifted.

"We have to thoroughly analyse the situation in China", says Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik. The country managed to contain COVID-19 across a large area. In this interview, the Sinologist explains what lessons Europe can draw from Chinese methods and how China is fighting against an anti-Chinese sentiment.

uni:view: You say that the population of China has a deep distrust of its government. Despite this distrust, how did the government manage to successfully enforce the restrictive measures against the coronavirus?
Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik: We currently see the same distrust between the general public in Europe and their governments. This is a problem. How did the Chinese government get a grip on it? On the one hand, it took very strict and rigorous actions against the population by using severe and extensive means to enforce the curfew. On the other hand, Chinese society was willing to cooperate. In view of the risks posed by the virus, the majority of people decided to obey the rules imposed by the government.

Initially, many journalists asked me: How is this possible? My answer was: For fear of being infected, most of the people are willing to accept these restrictions if they decrease their chances of being infected. A few weeks ago, people in Europe were not able to fully understand this, but now, I think, they do. However, the governments in Europe are less experienced in handling a crisis than the governments in East Asia, where major natural disasters hit on a regular basis. This means that there are procedures in place at all governmental levels for how to react. What is more, China had to deal with SARS and a serious outbreak of swine flu some years ago. At that time, similar measures were taken. For us, it is a new phenomenon.

uni:view: What can we learn from East Asian countries when it comes to dealing with this crisis?Weigelin-Schwiedrzik: It is important to thoroughly analyse and understand the situation in China. What measures that are already bearing fruit may we also adopt? And what are the measures that we cannot adopt due to our social lives or our political and economic structures? Since the end of January, people in Europe and the US have been writing off many Chinese measures as a result of their authoritarian regime.

Because of this, we have wasted time we would have needed to prepare accordingly, and missed important observations during this phase. Indeed, I reported time and again on the situation in China and how the people there have been reacting to the measures. I was astonished by the fact that people found this quite interesting but were unable to relate it to our own society in any way. The Chinese government was accused of reacting too slowly. But one thing is clear: The decision-makers in Europe also waited until the last possible minute.

It is also interesting that the serious outbreak in China was regionally limited to the very large city of Wuhan. The effects that this outbreak had on other regions in the country and in the near vicinity are relatively modest. The big problem in Europe is that the virus spreads from state to state. Taiwanese universities had already closed in the beginning of February. This is also reflected in the number of cases. Even in Hong Kong, where the borders had been open for a long time, the number of cases is relatively low. What did these countries do to prevent the exponential growth in cases in the first place?

uni:view: China and South Korea are currently shipping millions of protective masks, laboratory coats, gloves and oxygen masks to Europe. Is this a sign of solidarity or could they have an ulterior motive?
Weigelin-Schwiedrzik: This was China’s initiative. I am going to be frank with you: The countries in Europe that have been affected the most by this outbreak also have an especially large population of ethnic Chinese people. The Chinese government is trying to counteract the anti-Chinese sentiment that is currently growing throughout the world. This sentiment is only strengthened by, for example, President Trump talking about a “Chinese virus”. The Chinese government says: “We know that the first outbreak of the disease was in China. We have made more progress in the fight against the virus and want to help you minimise the consequences and protect the medical personnel, who are especially vulnerable.” This is one of the reasons why China is acting in this way and should not be immediately misconstrued as an expansionary endeavour.

Throughout the 20th century, Southeast Asia has experienced serious riots against Chinese people. In America, the Chinese population is already buying weapons because they think that the country cannot protect them. With the message “We are assuming responsibility. We are sending doctors and equipment to Italy and are manufacturing as many ventilators as possible”, the Chinese government demonstrates responsible behaviour towards us and its own citizens.

uni:view: The Chinese doctor who died of COVID-19 and the mayor of Wuhan had already raised the alarm about the coronavirus at an early stage, but the government only reacted by banning or slandering them. Do you think that China may be hit by a political crisis sparked off by the coronavirus?
Weigelin-Schwiedrzik: I have been asked this question a lot during the last weeks. All over the world, governments are thinking about the impact this crisis might have on political and social stability. This is an even bigger problem in a one-party state compared to a democratic country, because there is no alternative to this party. If the population considers the state to be incapable of overcoming this crisis under the leadership of this party, the entire system may break down. For this reason, the level of nervousness in China is particularly high. The one-party system has to continuously re-evaluate: How to exert control and how to relinquish control?

We think that in an authoritarian state all people are synchronised and obey without question. But this is not the case. In an authoritarian system, there are a lot of hidden and overt conflicts. The authoritarian system is especially vulnerable in such a crisis. And this increased vulnerability prevents the system from reacting rationally and in a transparent way. Instead, it turns a blind eye to the actual threat for as long as possible.

uni:view: 60 million people were quarantined for two months in Hubei province. How does this affect these people and what problems are they facing now?
Weigelin-Schwiedrzik: People’s reactions are very diverse. There are people who became extremely anxious or nervous and there are those who are critical of the Chinese system. Others again say: These things happen. You just have to deal with it and obey the government and its measures. Nevertheless, scientific approaches always have to compete with superstition in China. The people think that they are being punished by supernatural forces because they have been living beyond their means. These beliefs are still deeply rooted in society and lead to a situation in which people just come to terms with it and say: “If we are already being punished now, then we better be well-behaved and not be rebellious and topple the government.” Some people hold on to their superstitions just as strongly as others believe in the power of science.

uni:view: What could a return to normality in Hubei look like? What are the first steps?
Weigelin-Schwiedrzik: We can already see the first steps being taken with the so-called migratory labourers in the last few weeks: They live in the countryside but work in cities. Step-by-step, they are being brought back to the cities with a great deal of administrative effort to revive manufacturing. The normalisation phase has started much earlier than we noticed. In addition, many doctors and the military were brought to Wuhan to support the efforts there. These people are now also being brought back gradually. They must be particularly careful here to avoid transmitting the virus accidentally from Wuhan to other cities.

uni:view: While China is restoring normality, the rest of the world is still awaiting the peak of the crisis. Could this backfire?
Weigelin-Schwiedrzik: Yes, it is a cause of considerable concern that people from outside may spread the virus again in a second wave after having already contained it successfully. Especially considering that so many Chinese people are living abroad. To prevent this, drastic precautionary measures are being taken: People entering the country are being put in strict quarantine. They are put in special buildings, sometimes also hotels, where they have to wait and see whether they fall ill or not within two weeks.

uni:view: Experts estimate that these measures reduced CO2 emissions by about 200 tons in China. Do you think that these effects are sustainable or could there be a rebound?
Weigelin-Schwiedrzik: From a realistic point of view, it is not sustainable, quite the opposite. It could only be sustainable if this situation would have led to a system change. And in this case, there is no opportunity to make that happen. The current system is under so much pressure that there is no time to consider a substantive change. From a realistic point of view, we can only hope that the economy in China can regain momentum little by little, despite the market for many Chinese products lying idle in Europe and America, and China facing the administrative problem of reviving manufacturing.

However, when it comes to products for which there is a high demand in Europe and America (i.e. masks, protective clothing, ventilators), we can observe how China manages to manufacture as much as is needed to supply the market within a very short period of time. This immediately leads to an increase in CO2 emissions. What remains to be seen is whether the forced change in people’s lifestyles could lead to a long-term change. Maybe some people will realise now that it is also fine to stay at home once in a while, to talk with one another or to play cards. It is not absolutely necessary to rush from one place to the next every single day. Slowing down your life also holds a special appeal.

uni:view: Thank you for the interview. (sn)

Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik is Professor of Chinese Studies at the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Vienna. (© Barbara Mair)