In the modern world, information is power. Data now dominates our lives and, whether we like it or not, pretty much everything we do is now recorded in some way. This data is fed into the ever-expanding matrix of data that governments and private enterprises now use to make more informed decisions about the future and conduct detailed analyses of the past. But the power of information goes beyond the sophisticated algorithms we use to analyze data.
Controlling The Flow
The benefits of controlling the flow of information have been known to and exploited by governments around the world for centuries. China’s Great Firewall is the most prominent example of this in the modern world, but it isn’t just authoritarian regimes that have dabbled in information control – the US has its own chequered past in this regard.
However, while information control is practiced to some degree by every government, only the overtly and unabashedly oppressive states of North Korea and Eritrea come anywhere close to China in the scale of their desire for information control, if not their execution of it. Whereas democratic states mostly practice information control as an issue of national security, China uses its control of the flow of information over its borders as a means of exerting control over the political and cultural discourse in the country.
Breaching The Firewall
The prevailing opinion within the halls of Zhongnanhai is that the Great Firewall, and the control it gives the CPC (Communist Party of China) over its citizens, is paramount to the security and stability of the state. This has generally been driven by a fear of the impact that information coming into China from the outside world might have on its citizens and their perceptions of the communist party.
The Great Firewall is easily breached – the use of VPNs and proxies throughout China is commonplace, among both citizens and foreign tourists. It is thanks to this circumvention of the firewall that information is able to flow back and forth over China’s borders. This is how we in the west have found out about many of the more draconian measures that are currently in place throughout mainland China.
Downplaying The Pandemic
The Covid-19 outbreak has laid bare another great fear of the Chinese state – domestic opinion. Relentless propaganda and tight control of the media give the Chinese government significant influence over the way its people think and behave, something they fear outside influences might jeopardize. But with a crisis on the scale of the coronavirus outbreak, it is impossible for the CPC to hide the nature of the issue from its citizens.
In an ideal scenario, China’s Great Firewall would enable it to present whatever picture it wants to its own citizens while being able to present another to the global community. The Great Firewall would then serve as a barrier, preventing domestic messaging from being corrupted by the message presented to the rest of the world. However, because the Great Firewall is not impermeable, the CPC cannot afford to undermine itself by telling its citizens one thing and the rest of the world something else. It is this delicate balancing act that makes China an inherently unreliable partner in situations like the current coronavirus pandemic.
SARS & MERS
Covid-19 is the third new major coronavirus disease to hit China this century. The other two – SARS and MERS were both decidedly more deadly than Covid-19, although thankfully much less contagious. In the case of both SARS and MERS, China downplayed the severity of the outbreaks; the same is true of Covid-19.
The data that China presents to the world needs to convey the severity of the outbreak so that other countries can respond accordingly (otherwise the resulting backlash would be catastrophic to China’s global image), while also making the CPC’s handling of the outbreak look competent to a domestic audience. Because the Great Firewall is easily breached, China can’t take the easy route out – giving the international community more accurate data while pulling the wool over its citizens’ eyes.
An Existential Thread
There is a small but vocal minority in the western media who would have you believe that an inherent distrust of China’s data is a stance steeped in racial or cultural prejudice. But anyone with a working knowledge of China’s recent history knows that a failure to control or be seen to control the spread of Covid-19 within its borders would present an existential threat.
China’s domestic security is built entirely upon its ability to provide for and protect its citizens. A century ago, when the United States and Europe were reaping the rewards that their industrialized economies had bought them, China was an impoverished nation. Imperial rule in China didn’t end until 1912 when the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in favor of the Republic Of China.
Rapid industrialization, albeit at a horrifying human cost, transformed the nation within a generation. The CPC still draws much of its legitimacy from its ability to provide for its citizens while gradually raising their living standards. A crisis like Covid-19 threatens to reveal the deep-seated inefficiency and corruption that plagues the Chinese state and would significantly harm its legitimacy in the eyes of many Chinese people.
A Tipping Point?
When Hong Kong erupted into political protests last year, it caught the Chinese government completely off guard. Many observers noted that it was a series of similar crises at the periphery of the empire that ultimately brought down the Soviet Union. The kind of cataclysm that brings down nation-states is rarely the result of a single incident, but there is often an identifiable turning point.
The Chernobyl disaster was cited by Mikhail Gorbachev as the ultimate cause of the Soviet Union’s demise. Like the Covid-19 outbreak, that was a disaster with global implications. The USSR was unnaturally open about events at Chernobyl because, like Covid-19, there was nothing they could do to prevent the fallout from reaching Europe. When it did, European scientists could, and did, deduce for themselves the severity of the incident.
Already, we have seen increasing calls for more freedom of speech in China. The apparent muzzling of doctors and medical staff who tried to raise the alarm early in Wuhan has caused widespread anger and has undermined the CPC’s argument that controls on free speech are necessary to ensure the security of its citizens
Whether Covid-19 proves to be the final straw for the CPC or not, it will undoubtedly cause a lasting change in the country. If the communist regime in China does fall within the first half of the 21st century, it seems unthinkable that Covid-19 won’t have played a part.