As China re-emerges from more than two months of quarantines and lockdowns, its government is relying on a familiar playbook during times of crisis.
Critics are being detained and silenced online. The government has tightened controls over communications, banning whistleblowers and critics from online forums while state-backed media champions Beijing’s actions.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says it’s a typical response for an autocracy facing a crisis: Become more aggressive and deny people their rights.
“While they may in some instance solve a particular problem in a particular way that facially resolves the crisis that’s in front of them, in the end they do enormous harm to the people of their own nation and put the rest of the world at risk as well,” he said in early April.
But China leaders are also adding a new chapter in their playbook – taking suppression to pandemic-level heights against even high-ranking insiders.
Hours before Pompeo spoke, Beijing announced an investigation into an influential critic of President Xi Jinping. The detention of Ren Zhiqiang, a retired business tycoon and “princeling,” or child of top party officials, shocked longtime China observers who saw it as a significant signal within China’s leadership.
And Ren wasn’t alone. Two weeks later, Sun Lijun, vice minister of public security, also was placed under investigation. Sun handled domestic security and is among the very few of trusted keepers of China’s most sensitive secrets, which include information on the personal lives of senior leaders.
To China watchers, the moves signaled an aggressive new posture on the part of President Xi and underscored the risks to his leadership amid attacks from the United States and others looking to assign blame for the global pandemic.
Only a few short months ago, commentators and foreign policy analysts had been talking about Washington’s decline and Beijing’s economic ascendance as if it were a foregone conclusion. The story they are writing now is very different, with China’s global stature and trajectory at risk of permanent alteration.
Paul Miller, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University said the pandemic is the greatest challenge to China in decades, and he would not be surprised if it didn’t lead to challenges within the Chinese Communist Party.
"That may take the form of an internal leadership challenge to Xi," Miller said in an email to VOA. The detentions of Ren and Sun could signal just that, he said.
While Xi wields the stick inside China, on the outside it is all carrot. Cases of the coronavirus reportedly have subsided. As the country adjusts, it is pursuing what critics call “mask diplomacy,” shipping test kits, ventilators and other medical goods to countries where COVID-19 is still on the rise.
Containment by QR
What became the biggest quarantine in human history began in China.
Cities here were sealed off, transportation between them stopped. For more than two months, people were not allowed to be outside. Hundreds of millions of people were placed under quarantine after the virus was discovered in Wuhan.
Today in many cities, barriers erected during the quarantine have not been demolished, and residents are not allowed to come and go freely.
It is a new normal: “The largest public health experiment in the history of humankind,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University told VOA.
China was well-positioned to police it.
With hundreds of millions of high-tech surveillance cameras installed across the country, biometric facial recognition can identify even people wearing masks, while artificial intelligence systems can spot them by their walking postures.
“I thought the days when humans are ruled by machines and algorithms won’t happen for at least another 50 years,” a blogger named “Law Guru Matt” wrote on the popular Chinese forum Zhihu. “All of sudden, the coronavirus made it come early and let people have a deep experience of it.”
As Beijing began relaxing its quarantines and lockdowns in April, it faced a troubling question: How to know who is healthy and who is not?
One of China's tech giants provided an answer: a color-coded QR code for each citizen that tells whether they must self-quarantine based on their risk profile.
The special government-issued health code on people’s phones is required to conduct daily errands, but not everyone can even get one. It also gives government access to the contents of users’ phones.
Zhang Yi, a resident in Wuhan, organized a group on WeChat, a popular messaging app. Some of the issues the group discussed were politically sensitive, and Zhang said his WeChat account has been suspended.
Without the account, however, he said he can’t receive the health code.
"I can't do grocery shopping, can't get on bus since I don’t have the QR code," said Zhang in a telephone interview with VOA. The end of lockdown in Wuhan makes no difference to him, he said.
"They said the lockdown is lifted, but I still can't get out of my community's gate."
Battle over the story
As the coronavirus emerged in December and January, some citizens and citizen journalists were able to dodge social media censors and share what they saw.
The death of Li Wenliang, the whistleblower Wuhan doctor who came down with the COVID-19 illness, briefly stirred an online outcry. Disturbing images on social media showed people chained up or beaten by police for not wearing masks.
But fewer of the images can be found online, likely scrubbed by censors.
Three citizen journalists reported from the front lines in Wuhan during some of the worst weeks of the epidemic. Millions of people have viewed their videos and read their posts on Chinese social media, Twitter and YouTube.
Then they went missing.
One of the three, Li Zehua, who previously worked at China’s state broadcaster CCTV, reappeared last week after nearly two months. Li said he had been detained by police and forcibly quarantined. The whereabouts of the two other video bloggers, Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin, still are not clear.
Foreign journalists fell victim to the censors’ grip.
Last month, China’s foreign ministry ordered reporters from The New York Times, the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal to return media passes. It also demanded that those media outlets, as well as the Voice of America, provide the government with detailed information about their operations.
In its latest rankings of press freedom, the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders accused China of trying to create a “new world media order” by employing a “system of information hyper-control, of which the negative effects for the entire world have been seen during the coronavirus public health crisis.”
Reversal of fortune
Until the coronavirus, China had been poised to eclipse the United States this year as the world’s largest economy.
The other three biggest economies – the United States, Japan and the European Union – are now drawing up plans to woo their companies out of China.
A recent survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in China and the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai found that one in five U.S. firms say the coronavirus will accelerate moving away from China.
And skepticism about China’s statements, case counts, and intentions abound. "Do you really believe those numbers in this vast country called China?” President Donald Trump said at a recent briefing. “Does anybody really believe that?"
Trump faces sharp criticism at home for his own handling of the outbreak and has pointed the finger at China on multiple occasions. Among other things, China has fanned groundless claims that the virus may have introduced from the U.S.
Officially, the Chinese say the world is in this all together. “The coronavirus epidemic is the common enemy of mankind,” a spokesperson for the state news agency Xinhua said after White House trade adviser Peter Navarro criticized the quality of virus testing kits from China.
He went further in his April 27 remarks on the Trump-friendly “Fox & Friends” morning show.
“They could have contained it in Wuhan,” he said. “They didn’t. They seeded the world with this, with hundreds of thousands of Chinese getting on aircraft to Milan, to New York and other places.”
China has disputed claims that the virus originated in Wuhan.
Part of China’s strategy now is to present an image of competence and benevolence. Beijing has sent medical experts and badly needed supplies to countries hit hard by the pandemic – including the United States.
"As of Apr. 20, China had provided the US with over 2.46 (billion) masks, meaning 7 masks for each in the US, plus nearly 5,000 ventilators & many others," Hua Chunying, China's foreign ministry spokesperson said on Twitter.
Such efforts have won appreciation from some. "The only country that can help us is China," Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić said as he kissed the Chinese flag when medics and medical supplies arrived at the airport in last month.
So did China spread the virus – or the remedies?
Critics of President Xi aren’t persuaded that he can ward off all blame.
"Xi is trying to forestall these (negative) outcomes through a charm offensive, trying to posture China as a leader in the world's crisis,” said Miller, the international affairs professor.
“His overtures are frankly incredible and laughable to most western audiences and risk making Xi's problem worse through the sheer chutzpah,” he said.
Internally, Xi faces a different set of challenges. The moves against Sun and Ren are seen as telling. Ren had survived political storms before thanks to a carefully cultivated network of communist party allies.
But in a February essay, he blamed Xi for covering up the truth about the extent of outbreak, for failing to make critical information public and for allegedly lying to cover up his mismanagement.
"By placing Ren Zhiqiang under investigation, Xi Jinping sent a powerful message that he will not tolerate his power being questioned openly," Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing, told VOA.
"With Ren in custody, few dissident voices are left within the party," Wu said. "The party members, intellectuals and entrepreneurs who had supported him are now in trouble, too.
“They have no choices but to remain silent."
VOA State Department reporter Nike Ching contributed to this report.