The Communist Party has a well-defined playbook for handling the deadly crises that have arisen on its watch.
Step 1: Find a local official to take the blame. In political science, we often describe China’s governance system as one of “fragmented authoritarianism.” Responsibility for making and implementing policies is diffused across multiple levels of government. This structure allows for easy scapegoating in times of crisis. For the coronavirus, local officials in Wuhan and Hubei province have been blamed for mishandling the outbreak. Jiang Chaoliang, the highest-ranking official in Hubei, recently resigned in disgrace.
Step 2: Respond aggressively, even excessively. When a crisis arises, the central government will take great pains to show that it cares. This is what the author Ian Johnson recently called “Actionism”—action for action’s sake. This response might come in the form of a new law, or visits by top officials to the affected area. Entire cities, roughly 50 million people, have been quarantined in response to the coronavirus. And on evening television, the news shows clips of cranes and cement mixers building whole hospitals in just a matter of days. (Of note: these machines have become internet celebrities in China).
Step 3: Control the narrative. In China’s political education system, citizens are taught to internalize the idea of “struggle.”