Wuhan coronavirus heightens political risks for the CCP; analyzing the Wuhan lockdown

SinoInsight  1 

In the morning of Jan. 23, the Wuhan local government announced that all urban transport networks (public transportation, trains, etc.) in the city would be shut down and suspended outgoing flights from Wuhan starting 10:00 a.m. local time. The Wuhan authorities said that also urged residents not to leave the city and advised against travel into the city. According to reports in overseas Chinese language media, many Wuhan residents ignored the government’s advisory to not leave the city and rushed to exit before 10:00 a.m. local time.

The Wuhan government did not explain what the criteria for locking down the city were or when the lockdown would be lifted. The health authorities in Wuhan said in a separate notice that the lockdown would be in place for an indefinite period.

According to information that was widely circulated online, the CCP Central Military Commission had reportedly ordered the Central Theater Command to assist the Wuhan government in locking down the city and prevent “mass panic and people movement.” Light tanks and armored personnel carriers were reportedly deployed to Wuhan, and the accompanying troops were reportedly equipped with chemical warfare gear.

As of Jan. 23, Wuhan coronavirus had infected 628 people and killed 17 in mainland China, according to the PRC’s National Health Commission. The health authorities claim that 28 people recovered from the virus.

On Jan. 22, Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang told state mouthpiece Xinhua News Agency that the whole city is in a “state of war” and that his government was putting in place measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus inside and out of Wuhan.

Also on Jan. 23, two cities neighboring Wuhan, Huanggang (population 7.5 million) and Ezhou (population 1 million), announced that lockdowns similar to Wuhan would be imposed at midnight on Jan. 24.

OUR TAKE
1. Located in central China, Wuhan is a major transport hub. Railroads into and out of Wuhan go in eight directions and link north-south and east-west travel. The Wuhan lockdown will greatly affect transportation in the rest of China, and it is also unrealistic for the PRC government to maintain a complete lockdown over a sustained period. The Wuhan government’s most immediate and big problem would be keeping the city supplied with living essentials under the lockdown.

2. According to mainland media reports, some 299,600 passengers departed from Wuhan Station, Hankou Station, and Wuchang Station in Wuhan City to other parts of China; Wuhan Station alone saw the departure of 93,100 passengers. Because those infected by the new coronavirus will not show symptoms during the incubation period, such mass migration of people greatly raises the chances for the virus to spread throughout the whole country.

In the event of a serious epidemic on the mainland, there is a possibility that the central government could decide to lockdown key first-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Guangzhou. And if the World Health Organization declares a global health emergency and designates China as an epidemic area, then the PRC could be dealt an economic blow that is more severe than the Sino-U.S. trade war.

The CCP will still be able to find a “silver lining” in a serious epidemic—it can conveniently blame the epidemic for China’s rapid economic decline instead of admitting to its bad economic policies. However, we believe that the CCP will not be able to enjoy the “silver lining” because the Chinese people would likely be more concerned about the CCP’s mishandling of a serious epidemic, including lockdowns of first-tier cities. Given the litany of domestic and foreign problems plaguing the CCP, strong societal backlash could seriously threaten regime survival.

3. Some observers may believe that the PRC is becoming more transparent and has “improved” from the past by confirming the human-to-human transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus and releasing more information about the virus in recent days. Other observers who have relevant experience in dealing with the CCP regime remain skeptical: Peter Cordingley, a spokesman for the World Health Organization during the SARS crisis, accused Beijing of “lying about the spread of the Wuhan flu virus from the start,” while Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen called on the PRC to “share with Taiwan correct information about the virus.”

In our Jan. 22 analysis, we explained why Party culture (including the survival-dominance dynamic) guarantees that the CCP is engaging in a cover-up with regard to the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. We wrote that “even after officially acknowledging an epidemic, both local and central governments will almost certainly engage in lesser forms of cover-up to protect themselves politically and preserve the image of the CCP regime”; lesser forms of cover-up include putting on a show of being “transparent” while hiding crucial information, spinning negative news as positive news, downplaying the full extent of the epidemic, and packaging pernicious measures of dealing with the epidemic as political accomplishments “for the people’s welfare.”

A review of official confirmed cases and deaths reported during the SARS epidemic in 2003 gives us an idea of what a lesser cover-up looks like. The PRC claimed that there were only 5,327 SARS confirmed cases and 349 deaths during the entire epidemic, with a fatality rate of 6.6 percent. In comparison, there were 1,755 confirmed cases and 299 deaths (fatality rate of 17 percent) in Hong Kong and 346 confirmed cases and 37 deaths (fatality rate of 11 percent) in Taiwan.

That the CCP is engaging in lesser forms of cover-up is not a minor concern. Still more concerning is the CCP’s penchant of admitting damaging information when it has something even bigger to cover-up. The most obvious example is the CCP massaging economic figures to show a “healthy” GDP number and reflect that the Chinese economy is in a “normal” gradual decline when other economic indicators suggest that China’s GDP is several points lower than what the official figure states and that the economy has been deteriorating rapidly for several years.

A less well-known but very pertinent example is the CCP’s admission of organ harvesting. After repeatedly denying allegations that first surfaced in 2005 that it was engaging in the live organ harvesting of Falun Gong adherents and other prisoners of conscience, then PRC health ministry spokesman Mao Junan admitted to the BBC in a 2007 interview that the regime had been harvesting organs from “death row prisoners.” By 2015, Huang Jiefu, the head of the PRC’s National Organ Donation and Transplantation Committee, was telling pro-CCP Hong Kong media that the organ harvesting of “death row prisoners” was the work of purged security czar Zhou Yongkang, an admission which indirectly affirmed the findings of independent international investigations into the live organ harvesting allegations.

In 2018, an independent China Tribunal found that it was “beyond doubt” that forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has taken place in the PRC “on a substantial scale by state-supported or approved organizations and individuals.” The following year, the tribunal said in a unanimous determination at the end of its hearings that forced organ harvesting in China had been going on for at least two decades and that it was “certain that Falun Gong was a source—probably the principal source—of organs for forced organ harvesting.”

Thus, we believe that there is a very good possibility that one of the reasons why the CCP elite is suddenly being “transparent” about the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak is that the “outbreak” has already become a serious epidemic, or something much worse. Indeed, Party culture is a reason why we wrote in our China 2019 outlook that in the event that contagious diseases break out on the mainland, the authorities “will only divulge more information about a disease outbreak when the situation becomes too problematic to cover up.” The Wuhan lockdown further affirms our believe that the epidemic situation in China could be much more severe than the 2003 SARS epidemic.

4. We noted in our China 2020 outlook that, “A variety of highly contagious diseases affecting both humans and animals could break out and spread across China. The PRC will attempt to conceal the various epidemics until the situation is dire. We do not rule out the possibility that the PRC will use unethical means to contain the spread of the diseases and eliminate the epidemics.” In considering Party culture and the CCP’s past handling of epidemics, we believe that the Wuhan lockdown already partially corroborates our assessment of the PRC’s use of unethical means to deal with an epidemic.

A study of the CCP’s history shows that it has an atrocious human rights record and little regard for human life. We question the CCP’s ability to handle the Wuhan epidemic in a humane way, especially when it is increasingly pressed for cash and lacks sufficient healthcare experience to deal with a serious epidemic. Thus, we will not be surprised if news emerges later that the CCP has resorted to inhumane measures to eliminate the epidemic.